Gideon Alert: Oklahoma legislature addresses case overload by restricting access to justice

BY David Carroll on Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 11:11 AM

On April 15, 2010, GIDEON ALERTS notified readership of the serious case overload situation at the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS).  OIDS’ 61 staff attorneys each handle between 400-500 cases, even though they predominantly provide services in death cases, serious felonies and appeals (or, 3 to 5 times over capacity according to national standards). 

The Tulsa World reports that a new bill passed the Oklahoma Legislature – ostensibly allowing the Department of Corrections more flexibility in how executions are carried out – including language denying appointed counsel to any defendant who is able to make bail, unless a judge is willing to pay for the cost of representation out of their own court budget.

The Guidelines for Legal Defense Systems in the United States, issued by the National Study Commission on Defense Services under grant from the United States Department of Justice, state that “[e]ffective representation should be provided to anyone who is unable, without substantial financial hardship to himself or to his dependents, to obtain such representation” and “whether or not the person has been released on bond"  should not be a factor in determining eligibility (Guideline 1.5). “Substantial hardship” is also the standard promulgated by the American Bar Association (ABA).  While ABA Providing Defense Services Standard 5-7.1 makes no effort to define need or hardship, it does prohibit denial of appointed counsel because of a person's ability to pay part of the cost of representation, because friends or relatives have resources to retain counsel, or "because bond has been or can be posted (emphasis added)."

Besides not being in compliance with national standards, the Oklahoma bill will most likely increase the overall state financial obligations, by forcing clients to remain in jail pre-trial in order to get an attorney and/or by delaying trials and dispositions as defendants try to navigate the justice system without the guiding hand of counsel.  Moreover, the bill will make the level of justice a person receives even more dependent on where within Oklahoma the crime is alleged to have been committed, as the bill’s eligibility requirement does not apply in the two major urban jurisdictions (Tulsa and Oklahoma City).