Criminal Justice Reform: what’s next?
Although the United States continues to lead the world in the number of citizens under the authority of the criminal justice system, 2018 witnessed champions of criminal justice reform across the county achieve victories in their relentless quest to successfully chip away at the injustice in America’s criminal justice system.
In Oklahoma, a report co-published by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and FWD.us shows the number of people entering Oklahoma prisons in 2018 grew 11 percent after a slight decline between 2016 and 2017. The bipartisan political organization that advocates for immigration and criminal justice reform notes the influx of 10,777 prisoners admitted in 2018 by state corrections officials was "the highest single-year total of all time."
“Although we’ve made much progress, there is still much work to be done in Oklahoma,” said Timothy Tardibono, executive director of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council. “Whether it be the types and numbers of people being sent to prison, or the conditions the prison population experiences at the Oklahoma County Jail, the progress we see is steady but still slow. We know what the issues are, it’s time now to move forward and resolve them.”
Oklahoma County is the only county in the state without a county sales tax dedicated to funding its jail and daily criminal justice system. The two recently elected county commissioners say improvements at the county jail will be their top priorities. District 1 Commissioner Carrie Blumert and District 3 Commissioner Kevin Calvey both campaigned on the need to end overcrowding and improve conditions at the Oklahoma County jail.
Both commissioners called jail conditions, and criminal justice more broadly, one of the most urgent issues facing the county. Although both agree that a new facility is likely the best solution in the long term, the two commissioners said they hoped to pursue other ideas to improve conditions in the near term, including using MAPS 4 funds for something related to the jail or a holistic treatment center near the jail and exploring whether it makes sense to jail people accused of nonviolent offenses.
Tardibono says that nothing should be ruled out.
“We are looking at a wide range of reforms,” he said. “Those reforms include the pretrial release process, governance, costs, fines and fees, booking and releasing low-level offenders or citing them and releasing like most municipalities do, and expediting the diversion determination before they are booked into the jail.”
Despite the statewide increase in prison populations, Tardibono says there are ongoing improvements in safely reducing the jail population in Oklahoma County.
“In fact, we are starting to see the jail population reduced to numbers we haven’t seen in over a decade,” he noted. “That is good news for improving public safety while also decreasing costs to the taxpayer. Yet even with this progress, we still have a jail that is overcrowded and difficult for staff to provide needed services.”
Tardibono says that the next steps are to continue to improve the justice system while the community imagines what a future facility looks like.
“Previous discussions in our county have always been about building a bigger facility,” he said. “The current conversation is exploring whether it’s smarter to build smaller with the concept of a justice center that facilitates more options than we have in the current jail. Some of these other options could include ideas like quicker booking and release, on-site connection to local providers, a facility housing minimum and/or medium level offenders in appropriate settings and a hub for case monitoring and accountability. Those are the options other cities and counties are building into their new or renovated facilities and those are the solutions we need here to increase public safety and to interrupt the addiction cycle some of our neighbors are trapped in.”
Tardibono also hopes that the overdue justice reinvestment funding could be allocated in the upcoming legislative session.
“That funding will provide much needed services in Oklahoma County for addiction treatment and recovery. We are making progress and the big challenge is how to keep the momentum moving in the right direction.”