Budget Cuts Shut Down Summer Jury Trials
In U.S. criminal proceedings, you have a right to a jury trial. The Constitution says so. The same clause in the Bill of Rights affords defendants the right to a speedy trial.
Nothing in the Constitution says those rights endure only as long as legislators budget enough money to pay for timely jury trials. Yet a perfect storm in the Oklahoma legislature is putting the right to speedy trial and trial by jury in peril.
The storm burst into Tulsa with news that summer jury trials had been suspended until late August. State budget cuts had caused court administrators to drop jury weeks from the summer court schedule.
For the prior two years, court administrators had scheduled 20 jury weeks a year. In May, 2016, Tulsa County court officials announced amended jury schedules. The fiscal 2017 schedule was cut from 20 weeks to 18.
Tulsa County courts have historically suspended jury trials in July to allow for judges’ vacation time. Now, with juries cut in late June and early August, that means Tulsa County will not conduct jury trials for two full months.
So Little Money, So Many Laws
Oklahoma’s fiscal 2017 budget cuts followed a $1.3 billion revenue shortfall state officials announced in February, 2016. Driven by depressed oil prices, the shortfall amounted to about 20 percent of fiscal 2016 spending in Oklahoma.
Budget cuts are just one factor that contributes to a perfect storm threatening speedy trials by jury in Oklahoma. The other factor involves Oklahoma lawmakers’ penchant for making laws. Lots of laws. Tough laws. Laws that send a lot of people to prison for a long time.
A website that tracks legislation in all 50 states – billtrack50.com – found Oklahoma lawmakers pass far more bills than other states. Only seven states passed more laws than Oklahoma in 2012. With one exception – Arkansas – the other states that pass more laws are more populous than Oklahoma.
Why does Oklahoma need so many laws compared to other states? As a red state in national maps of political affiliation, Oklahoma would be counted among those with conservative electorates that favor smaller government and fewer laws.
An analysis of why some southern states pass more laws but elect more conservative lawmakers is beyond the scope of our analysis. We don’t know the count of laws passed means more actual legal mandates. Maybe Oklahoma’s constitutional protections against log-rolling multiple subjects into omnibus bills drives up the number of individual laws Oklahoma legislators adopt.
Our concern is more focused in the number of people hauled into court for violating Oklahoma laws. Whether these are new laws or not, Oklahoma’s many laws cost Oklahoma taxpayers a lot of money to enforce.
Oklahoma has notoriously severe drug laws, in some cases treating as felonies acts that have been legalized in some states and significantly decriminalized in others. Oklahoma provides potential life sentences for some drug crimes – marijuana cultivation, for example – that have been all but stricken from the books in other states.
A pot industry that is adding millions of dollars to Colorado’s tax revenue remains a criminal enterprise in Oklahoma, draining millions of dollars in court costs, incarceration costs and law enforcement costs.
Oklahoma continues to lead the nation in incarceration rates, ranking second nationwide in 2013, behind Louisiana. What’s more, Oklahoma shares the top of the incarceration-rate list with many of the states that also appear in the most-laws-passed list.
About That Speedy Trial
More people in prison is a strong indicator more people are passing through the court system, quite possibly as a result of more and more laws to be broken. Does that mean Oklahoma’s courts are more crowded than other state courts?
For that, the data we found was sketchy. The National Center for State Courts probably has the best publicly available data on courts’ case load, but Oklahoma is missing from much of the Center’s data. We did find one list that included Oklahoma courts’ non-traffic caseload for 2009.
Including all kinds of non-traffic cases — family law, civil litigation and criminal cases — Oklahoma residents had more court cases per resident than all but 10 other states in that list (two states were missing from the list). However you slice the admittedly thin data, it says Oklahoma has a busy court system.
For defendants facing trial in Tulsa County, a busy court system coupled with a two-month pause in jury trials could impair a right to speedy trial. Is that even legal?
The U.S. Supreme Court said in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972) that a delay of more than a year after arrest or indictment is presumed to be prejudicial, but did not set a hard time limit on when cases must be dismissed for speedy trial violations.
Oklahoma law allows up to 18 months for a felony trial when a person is out on bond, or one year if the person is in jail, but then only requires courts to review a case for speedy trial violations. Okla. Stat. tit. 22 § 812.1
Free Consultation, Tulsa Attorney
If you are denied access to court because courts did not have time or resources to afford you justice, you might have a reason to appeal. If you are denied a right to speedy trial for any reason, you need to act quickly to enforce your rights.