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Oklahoma’s urban justice systems are set for big changes. But who will fix rural jails?

by | December 7th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (0)

While Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons get most of the attention, nearly all of the important decisions on a criminal case have been made long before a person enters prison. Local law enforcement is responsible for arresting people who break the law and deciding who goes to jail, who receives a citation, and who gets a warning. Local District Attorneys decide who gets charged and how serious those charges are. Local judges and jail officials decide who gets released and who stays in jail as a person waits for their case to be resolved.

Fortunately in the last few years, stakeholders in both Oklahoma County and Tulsa County have begun large-scale projects to study the challenges facing their justice systems and to propose changes aimed at reducing jail populations and making court processes more efficient. The efforts, largely funded and spearheaded by philanthropists in each city, are broad, ambitious, and likely to have deep and positive impacts on the way justice is done in Oklahoma’s two urban counties.

While these efforts should be celebrated, they also raise important questions. Are the issues with our two urban justice systems, as identified by researchers (detailed below), also present in suburban and rural counties? If so, who will champion local justice reform there? As our urban counties embark on their justice reform efforts, Oklahomans must demand that these issues are also addressed for the majority of citizens who live outside Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. 

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New report examines reforms to rebuild trust between law enforcement and communities in Oklahoma

by | November 27th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (0)

Today, OK Policy released a report, “Strategies for Building Trust Between Law Enforcement and Communities in Oklahoma,” that details the challenges facing Oklahoma law enforcement and proposes a menu of reforms that have shown promise in addressing those challenges in jurisdictions across the country. By reforming policies regarding use-of-force and the treatment of race in policing, improving and broadening training procedures, and striving to hire officers that reflect the diversity of our communities, agencies can help to build trust with the communities they serve. Doing so improves the safety of officers and the public alike.

Tension between law enforcement and communities of color is not new or specific to our state, but statistics suggest that the problem could be more severe here compared to many other places. Much of the mistrust stems from a sense among minority groups of feeling unfairly targeted by the justice system as a whole, and police are the front line of that system. Oklahoma has one of the highest overall incarceration rates in the country, and the highest incarceration rate of black men in the country. Although protests over police-involved shootings have not erupted in Oklahoma at the same scale as in other parts of the country, we have much work to do to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

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Oklahoma’s sprawling criminal code could make a felon of almost anyone

by | October 12th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (7)

In the wake of the failure of the criminal justice reform proposals put forth by the Justice Reform Task Force this year, Rep. Scott Biggs, the chairman of the House Judiciary – Criminal Justice and Corrections committee, blamed Governor Mary Fallin and others of refusing to discuss the definition of “violent” and “nonviolent” crimes used by some of the bills. After the session, in the lead-up to an interim study on that definition, Rep. Biggs distributed a survey asking respondents to classify every felony under Oklahoma law as violent, nonviolent, or a new, vaguely-defined category created by Rep. Biggs, “danger to the public.”

Governor Fallin, for her part, declined to return the survey, instead sending a strongly-worded letter criticizing Rep. Biggs’ actions during and since the regular legislative session. (OK Policy was also invited to complete the survey, but declined to do so.) But the content and length of the survey are striking in themselves, revealing an increasingly sprawling criminal code that could make a felon out of just about any Oklahoman.

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How does SQ 788 compare to other states’ medical marijuana laws?

by | September 20th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice, Healthcare | Comments (7)

Photo by Chuck Coker

Next year, Oklahomans will vote on State Question 788, a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana. As of 2017, 29 states have approved measures legalizing the drug for medical purposes. We often think of legalization in binary terms — either medical marijuana is allowed, or it isn’t — but in practice, the systems put in place by those 29 states to regulate the drug vary greatly. Each state has many choices to make about how patients can be prescribed marijuana, how much they can have, and where they get it from. Some states choose permissive systems that lead to higher numbers of patients and dispensaries; other states restrict prescriptions to people with specified conditions and few or no dispensaries.

In contrast with the states that left the design of most of those regulations to state agencies, the language of SQ 788 is specific on many details. It would put in place laws that decide how a person applies for and receives a license to use medical marijuana; the quantities that a license holder can possess; the qualifications and licensing process for retailers, growers, processors, and transporters; and the tax rate and distribution of revenue from sales. When compared to other systems, SQ 788 would put in place a system that is on the permissive side, but well within the current spectrum of laws.

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Despite warnings, little has been done to ease prison and jail overcrowding (Capitol Update)

by | September 15th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (3)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

As has now become ritual, the Department of Corrections (DOC) is sounding the alarm about the overcrowding of Oklahoma’s Corrections system. It was announced last week that DOC reached another population record with 63,009 people in its system, marking the third significant population increase in less than a year. It was also announced that the Board of Corrections, when it meets this month, will likely be asked to consider what DOC Director Joe Allbaugh has described as a community release-based program. The yet undefined program is expected to release lower-risk prisoners to some sort of community supervision for part or all of the last 18 months of their sentences.

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Upcoming Event: The Atlantic and Reveal hosting OKC discussion of ‘The Experience of Women and Children Behind Bars’

by | September 13th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice, Upcoming Events | Comments (0)

The Atlantic magazine, in collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, is hosting a discussion with state and national criminal justice leaders about female incarceration in Oklahoma.

You can register for the event here.

From the organizers:

For decades, Oklahoma has led the nation in the rate at which it incarcerates women. Why?

As the state grapples with an emerging political consensus around criminal justice reform, The Atlantic will seek to understand the experiences of women affected by the state’s justice system. What are the underlying reasons — legal, political, social, emotional — behind their incarceration? What are the impacts on children, families, communities and the women themselves? And what might proposed reforms mean for women in particular?

When: Wednesday September 20, 2017, 1:00pm – 5:00pm

Where: Will Rogers Theatre, 4322 N. Western Avenue, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73118


  • Ziva Branstetter, Senior Editor, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting
  • Governor Mary Fallin
  • David Fritze, Executive Editor, Oklahoma Watch
  • Sheila Harbert, Chief Community Outreach Officer, Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma
  • Allison Herrera, Multimedia Reporter and Social Media Editor, Public Radio International
  • Steve Kunzweiler, District Attorney, Tulsa County
  • D’Marria Monday, National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls
  • Laura Pitman, Director of Population, Programs and Strategic Planning, Oklahoma Department of Corrections
  • Malika Saada Saar, Senior Counsel, Civil and Human Rights, Google
  • Susan Sharp, Presidential Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Oklahoma
  • Kris Steele, Executive Director, The Education and Employment Ministry
  • Alison Stewart, Contributing Editor, The Atlantic
  • Mimi Tarrasch, Executive Senior Program Director, Women in Recovery


Millions of dollars in court debt hang over residents of Oklahoma’s poorest neighborhoods

by | August 23rd, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

Court debt is heavily concentrated in the low-income, majority black areas of Tulsa County (Map by OK Policy)

Earlier this year, we released a report detailing the growth of fees attached to criminal court cases in Oklahoma. We found that as legislators attempt to prop up falling state revenues, fees have risen for every type of crime. When low-income defendants can’t keep up with payments on their enormous financial burdens to the court, a warrant may be issued for their arrest, leading to a cycle of incarceration that makes the climb out of poverty nearly impossible. Failure to pay court costs is among the most common reasons for bookings into the Tulsa County and Oklahoma County jails. 

Though we’ve had a clear sense of the individual-level impact of this debt through the stories of those who are affected, it’s been hard to quantify the impact on communities as a whole. The agency in charge of levying and collecting court-related fines and fees, the Administrative Office of the Courts, does not collect or publish data on how much is charged to or collected from people convicted of crimes.

To get a clearer sense of the depth of the problem, we collected data on outstanding debts to the court from the state court system’s online ePayments tool for misdemeanor and felony cases filed from 2011 to 2016. The data, available only for 13 counties across the state, includes the age and address of the defendant, the number of charges on their case, and the amount of money they currently owe to the courts. It does not include other amounts that defendants may owe in relation to their case, such as supervision fees due to the Department of Corrections or the District Attorney’s office. ZIP code data was unavailable in less than 5 percent of the roughly 139,000 cases for which data was collected.

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Bail reform should be the solution for Oklahoma’s overcrowded jails

by | August 16th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (3)

Leslie Briggs was an OK Policy summer intern. She is pursuing a Juris Doctor degree at the University of Tulsa College of Law.

Oklahoma voters know that the time is right for criminal justice reform for our state, and they showed it by passing State Questions 780 and 781 by wide margins last November. Not all stakeholders were on board: Just before the questions took effect on July 1, some Sheriffs and District Attorneys raised concerns about rising county jail populations, since many low-level drug and property offenders are no longer eligible for terms in state prisons. While overcrowded jails are a real problem, the state can do much more to solve it by reforming bail practices than by undoing recent reforms.

Like state prison populations, both urban and rural local jail populations have dramatically increased to a point that is breaking our ability to operate them safely. Oklahoma County jail, for example, was originally designed to hold 1,200 inmates; its average daily population has reached twice that size in recent years. But the vast majority of jail inmates in Oklahoma County – about 80 percent – are being held pretrial, which means they haven’t yet been convicted of a crime but can’t afford bail to get out of jail before their case is resolved. Nationwide, about 9 in 10 pretrial inmates have a bail amount set but are unable to meet the financial burden to be released from jail.

Jurisdictions across the country have shown that we can reduce that number by implementing an evidence-based, pretrial release program that relies on individual risk assessments rather than money bail. Doing so at the state level would save counties huge amounts of money without risking public safety.

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‘Prosecutorial discretion’ makes Oklahoma’s justice system a roll of the dice

by | August 7th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (4)

All Oklahomans must abide by the same laws. If you break the law, you’re sentenced according to the same statutes. In theory, this should mean that people convicted of a crime in urban Oklahoma County will receive a similar punishment to those in rural Cimarron County, and those on the Arkansas border in Sequoyah County will be treated the same as those on the Western border in Harmon County. 

In practice, however, a person’s chances of being charged with a felony or going to prison vary widely from courthouse to courthouse. That’s because prosecutors — which include District Attorneys and their assistants — have nearly unchecked power to decide whether to bring criminal charges against people who are arrested, what to charge them with, and, consequently, how severely they’re punished. That means the same crime can result in a lengthy prison sentence or a lenient probation period, depending on the county and the prosecutor in charge of the case. While this power — called “prosecutorial discretion” — is meant to allow flexibility in differing circumstances from case to case, new research suggests that it has played a major role in the growth of incarceration rates across the country.

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Will interim studies create stronger momentum for justice reform? (Capitol Update)

by | July 14th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (0)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

The House legislative interim studies for this summer and fall have been approved, assigned to committees, and published. The issue that attracted the most attention is criminal justice reform. In fact, Speaker Charles McCall combined several study requests and will appoint not one, but two special committees to deal with the various criminal justice studies that were approved. It will be interesting to see if much real progress is made next session.

Governor Fallin issued an Executive Order in July of 2016, establishing the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force and charging it with “develop[ing] comprehensive criminal justice and corrections reform policy recommendations designed to alleviate prison overcrowding and reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate while improving public safety.” The membership consisted of representatives of the courts, governor’s office, attorney general’s office, district attorneys, public defenders, private advocate organizations, chambers of commerce, YWCA, Board of Corrections, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, Department of Public Safety, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and two legislators, Sen. Greg Treat (R-OKC) and Rep. Terry O’Donnell (R-Catoosa).

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