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.
Systemic shortcomings are very similar in Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties
The Vera Institute issued its report on Oklahoma County’s justice system last December, and its Tulsa County report was published by The Frontier in September. The two reports make recommendations that are nearly identical:
- Reduce jail stays for low-level charges: Both reports note a very high jail admissions rate for low-level municipal and misdemeanor offenses like public intoxication, driving under a suspended license, and failure to pay fines and fees. They suggest establishing alternatives to arrest — like booking and releasing from jail or issuing a citation — that keep a person with minor charges, and who aren’t a threat to public safety, out of jail entirely.
- Reform pretrial detention practices: Both reports point to the large numbers of people who are held simply because they can’t afford bail. These inmates account for up to 80 percent of admissions. The report recommends using a risk-based system to determine pretrial release instead of releasing only those who can afford to pay.
- Expedite simpler cases: Both reports recommend moving cases through the steps of the justice process faster, enabling quicker resolution and cutting down on extended pretrial jail stays.
- Stop jailing people for failure to pay their debts to the court: Both reports urge law enforcement not to jail people only for failure to pay their fines, fees, and court costs. Failure to pay was the fourth most common charge for admissions to the Tulsa Jail in 2016. Vera proposes issuing a summons rather than arresting a person who can’t pay.
- Provide more diversion programs for people with mental illness and substance abuse: Both reports emphasize the need for more alternatives for people to get a handle on the mental illness and substance abuse issues that are at the root of repeated offenses.
- Improve oversight and accountability of the local justice system: In Oklahoma County, Vera notes that the “actors within the local justice system . . . do not share an understanding of how the jail . . . should be used. There is no coordination or collaboration across the system, and no one is reviewing the data that would tell them how that system is working.” The report recommends a permanent oversight body to implement reforms in Oklahoma County and similar staff to provide research and oversight in Tulsa County.
Oklahoma County has already gone to work implementing the recommendations. The Oklahoma City Police Department has significantly reduced time spent in jail by people they arrest, and they’ve ended the practice of jailing people for failure to pay their court costs. As more changes take hold, both counties stand to gain immensely from the changes, both in public resources saved and lives spared the consequences of unnecessary incarceration.
The rest of the state needs local justice system reform, too
The Oklahoma and Tulsa County jails undoubtedly face major problems. Oklahoma County’s jail now holds over twice the number of inmates it was designed for, and Tulsa County’s jail incarceration rate increased by 150 percent over 25 years. But the fastest growth in jail incarceration across the country in recent decades has occurred in rural areas, and jail incarceration rates are much higher in many rural counties compared to urban counties. The Oklahoma and Tulsa County jails, in fact, incarcerate citizens at a lower rate than the state average.
It’s hard to believe that the same problems in our urban counties don’t plague rural counties as well. It’s also hard to imagine how change will come to the other 75 counties without a strong outside push, either from philanthropists or elsewhere.
It’s up to the Legislature
It was disheartening to see the Legislature fail to pass the broadly popular, bipartisan solutions proposed by the Justice Reform Task Force last session. Passing those reforms is critical to easing the state’s booming prison crisis. But doing so must mark the beginning, not the end, of the reform process. Our urban areas are getting a strong push from philanthropy to eliminate unnecessary incarceration in local justice systems; our rural areas will need a push from the Legislature. It may not get any easier to pass strong reforms in the Capitol, but it’s critical to ensuring that all Oklahomans have a fair shot at justice and rehabilitation.