Communications and Policy Coordinator, Oklahoma
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Joe Griffin | September 21, 2018
Despite a series of reforms passed by the legislature, Oklahoma remains a negative example to rest of the nation for the perils of over-incarceration. This week, however, the Tulsa World reported innovation on the county level is having a positive impact on the burdensome jail population in Tulsa County.
According to data provided by the Vera Institute for Justice, Tulsa County’s daily jail population is down by 18 percent. In 2017, the average population was roughly 1,698 inmates. First quarter reports for 2018 show the population has now dropped to an average of 1,397 inmates.
While Oklahoma’s recent reforms that reduced a number of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors are likely a factor, Tulsa World reported that local government officials also played a key role in shrinking jail populations. Tulsa County has enacted several policies that get misdemeanor offenders through the system quicker and refer qualified offenders to alternative courts where they are able to work on recovering from substance abuse problems. One policy in particular diverts public intoxication offenders to “sobering up” facilities.
Another change that may seem simple is the county’s decision to modernize the work process by going completely digital. In the past, Tulsa County prosecutors would have to wait for hard copies of police reports, creating delays in decisions on whether to prosecute, dismiss or refer to an alternative court program. , the more likelyThis delay meant more time a low-level offender would have to spend in the county jail, which hurts public safety. Studies show the more time a low-level offender spends in jail he is to lose employment, which creates financial instability for his household, and increases the risk he’ll engage in criminal behavior and even substance abuse. Tulsa County prosecutor can now access digitally uploaded police reports and are able to make informed decisions without delay.
Tulsa World’s article is a serious reminder to criminal justice reform advocates that legislation is only part of the equation when it comes to meaningful and positive change to Oklahoma’s justice system. Legislation can provide guidelines, but it takes diligence and innovation among those who work in our courts and corrections systems to meaningfully reduce the inmate population while curbing recidivism.
The positive efforts made by Tulsa County are worthy of recognition. Their efforts should inspire other jurisdictions to look at their own methods and make innovations within their respective budgets and abilities. Even a small and modest change can lead to significant and positive progress to a fairer and more equitable justice system.