County courthouse suspends jury term; access to building restricted

Tim Farley / The Transcript

Employees at the court clerk's office continue to work Monday as new restrictions were put in place at the county courthouse. Commissioners and other elected officials decided Monday to limit access to the courthouse through the west entrance and court proceedings will only include people required to be there such as defendants and attorneys.

NORMAN — Chief Judge of the Cleveland County District Court Thad Balkman has issued an order halting warrants for arrest and court appearances that do not involve violent offenders, The Transcript learned Thursday in an email from Balkman.

“We’re asking sheriff’s deputies not to serve bench warrants or arrest anyone for crimes such as jumping bail or failure to appear in court,” Balkman said, to mitigate the spread of the virus. “We feel like there’s no reason to bring more people into our jails and courtrooms. We’re still going to enforce [warrants] for things like DUI, domestic abuse and violent crimes.”

The emergency order was filed Wednesday with the court clerk, “pursuant to the World Health Organization’s designation of the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic, the President of the United States’ declaration of a national emergency and Governor Stitt’s declaration of emergency,” the order states.

The order stops all requests to transport inmates from the Cleveland County jail or state prison facilities to the courthouse for appearances, unless the request is reissued at a later date.

The jail will not accept inmates from other county jails or state prisons.

Balkman’s order authorizes the Cleveland County sheriff to release people on their own recognizance bond for such offenses as traffic violations, civil warrants, failure to pay court fines or probation fees, failure to meet probation requirements such as community service, evaluations and treatment followup appointments.

Warrants for suspects involved in violent offenses such as domestic violence, assault and battery, stalking, protective order violations, possession of controlled dangerous substances, excluding marijuana, and driving under the influence will be served.

Osage County Judge Stuart Tate issued a similar order Monday.

On Monday the Supreme Court of the State of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a joint order detailing procedures for all district courts in the state to follow. 

The order urged court staff to practice Centers for Disease Control guidelines such as social distancing and ordered all district courts to suspend all jury terms for 30 days and to release all jurors from service.

Other precautions taken for inmates

The Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office has taken measures on behalf of at-risk inmates and relaxed its policies for those who will remain behind bars.

CCSO Public Information Officer Joy Hampton posted an announcement to the department’s Facebook page. Inmates will receive “some free phone calls” and text messages to communicate with loved ones in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The jail population was down by 15 percent Thursday morning.

“The Cleveland County Detention Center continues to work with our judges to release jail residents who are at risk due to age or health status as well as to release anyone with minor offenses who are not a danger to the public,” the statement reads.

Mental health and drug court appearances held at the jail have been canceled.

Mindy Ragan Wood366-3544mwood@normantranscript.com

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