Most discussions about criminal justice in Oklahoma center on our prison system, which is responsible for maintaining our highest-in-the-world incarceration rate but is dangerously underfunded. While our high incarceration rate may be the most pressing issue, law enforcement agencies are the piece of the justice system that can have the biggest impact on public safety. The evidence is clear that law enforcement can reduce crime by building strong relationships with their communities, working with them to resolve problems, and focusing prevention efforts in the geographical areas with the highest incidence of serious crime.
The Oklahoma City Police Department, led by Chief Bill Citty, has provided evidence that these strategies can help to reduce both crime and incarceration. In addition to implementing community policing strategies in recent years, the agency began arresting fewer people for minor, nonviolent offenses like failing to pay their court costs and marijuana possession. As a result, overcrowding at the Oklahoma County jail is easing while crime continues to decline. It’s a great example of how justice reform can work at the local level.
Reforms have led to fewer jail admissions
Oklahoma’s world-leading incarceration rate is not just about our overflowing prison population, which consists of about 27,000 people who have been convicted of a crime. It’s also about the thousands of people in local jails, most of whom are incarcerated before their case is resolved. Oklahoma County’s jail, designed to hold 1,200 inmates, held nearly 2,600 people by 2015. This overcrowding prompted a group of community leaders and justice system stakeholders to bring in the Vera Institute of Justice to study the jail and identify reforms to reduce jail incarceration.
Since the Vera Institute report was released in December 2016, stakeholders from the courts, law enforcement, and community organizations have been working to implement its recommendations. To reduce admissions to the jail, law enforcement agencies were asked to divert people away from jail after an arrest (for example, by issuing citations instead of booking them into jail) and to stop arresting people for failure to pay their court debt.
Oklahoma City Police heeded that recommendation, and the result has been a marked decline in people booked into jail by the Oklahoma City Police Department (OKCPD). Monthly receptions fat the Oklahoma County Jail are 10 to 17 percent lower in 2018 compared to 2017.
Lowering admissions to jail is a critical but often overlooked component of justice reform. Beyond simply packing many people into overcrowded jails, unnecessary jail incarceration for people accused of minor crimes can also contribute to harsher sentences. Those who are held in jail pretrial are more likely to plead guilty just to get out of jail than those who are released to the community while their case is resolved.
Crime rates have continued their downward march
Justice reform skeptics often warn that any change that makes our system less punitive will encourage more crime, but the crime trends in Oklahoma City instead demonstrate that the link between incarceration and crime is very weak. As OKCPD has arrested fewer people, the long downward trend in crime rates has continued unabated. The rate of crimes that are tracked by the FBI has fallen by more than half since 2003, from a rate of 100 reports per 1,000 residents that year to 45 per 1,000 in 2017. That’s driven mostly by a precipitous decline in the rate of nonviolent offenses, like burglary and larceny, that make up the bulk of the crimes that are tracked by the FBI.
OKCPD’s reforms still provide for sanctions for people who commit minor offenses, but those sanctions have been reduced significantly. Instead of spending days, or even months, in jail, people who commit minor offenses are instead instructed to appear in court and pay a fine, but they can otherwise carry on their lives as normal.
The promise of local justice reform
Justice reform has been a struggle in the Legislature, with reforms being delayed and weakened regularly throughout the last several years. Whether or not more reforms can make it through the Legislature, local actors, like law enforcement and District Attorney offices, have an enormous amount of discretion to make progress on the most pressing goal of reform: to reduce incarceration in both local jails and state prisons of non-violent individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. By changing how they deal with minor offenses, the Oklahoma City Police Department has made swift progress to reduce the population of the untenably overcrowded Oklahoma County Jail.
However, the changes implemented by OKCPD are not without critics. Some believe this shift in priorities is one of the main reasons that some officers filed ethics violations Chief Citty last month, claims that were quickly rejected by investigators. Much remains to be done, but OKCPD has laid a strong foundation for continued reforms that reduce punishment without jeopardizing public safety.