New studies could shake things up on criminal justice reform in Oklahoma

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Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle considered how best to improve Oklahoma’s criminal justice system this week in a series of studies in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Some lawmakers have examined and discussed the system for reintegrating those released from county jails or Department of Corrections facilities. Others explored the conditions of inmates and inmates, as well as the correctional officers who supervise them.

The two studies come as the Oklahoma County Jail and Oklahoma prison policies continue to come under public scrutiny. Lawmakers participating in both studies said the information obtained from presenters and speakers could impact and expand legislation drafted in future sessions.

“As long as we put over half a billion, six hundred and something millions (of dollars) in prisons and only put $ 32 million into the community, then we will continue to see the problems,” said Representative Justin Justin. Humphrey, R-Lane, and Chairman of the Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee.

Democrats Forrest Bennett, Jose Cruz, Ajay Pittman, Mauree Turner, Jason Lowe and Andy Fugate are introduced during a press conference on Capitol Hill on April 19.  Pittman and Lowe conducted interim studies this week, with Republican Representative Justin Humphrey, discussing possible areas for reform in the criminal justice system.

Conditions inside Oklahoma prisons and prisons

Staffing has been a concern raised at Oklahoma County Jail Trust meetings since its inception, but it is not the only one in this regard.

During Wednesday’s internal study led by Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City and Humphrey, former Rep. Bobby Cleveland, who is the executive director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said the problem was also spreading to the entire Oklahoma Correctional Service.

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Prisons could operate with a third of the optimal staff, according to Cleveland, and low wages hamper the ability to hire more. Without sufficient staff, problems increase, such as fighting and smuggling.

“When we have a shortage of officers, you get more contraband. You get more contraband, you have more fights,” Cleveland said. “No more fights with inmates against inmates and no more fights with inmates and correctional officers. It’s just going downhill.”

Contraband allegedly discovered in Oklahoma County jail

Cleveland said the main problems are officers working 15-hour or more shifts without relief, officers working more than two weeks in a row without a day off, and the Department’s failure to follow overtime laws. correctional services.

Senator Michael Brooks, of D-Oklahoma City, said the conditions under which people are held make a difference in the morale of those detained and those who hold them. Higher morale increases both safety and function in the facilities, he said.

“I’ve probably seen every prison in the county, pretty much, in the state of Oklahoma,” Brooks said. “There are no worse conditions than here in Oklahoma County.”

Brooks, who is also a criminal defense attorney, said problems with a faulty design of the Oklahoma County jail building have only worsened over time.

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A table is shown in a cell block at the Oklahoma County Jail.

Changes were recommended, including moving to a direct supervision model, similar to what is found in Tulsa County Jail, and focusing on population reduction.

The Oklahoma County Jail is designed for a capacity of 1,200 inmates; the population as of Monday was 1,672.

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“Typically, when you treat someone humanely, they’ll react the same way,” Brooks said. “During the time they are being held, most of them have not even been sentenced yet, they do not have access to sunlight, fresh air or anything. other.”

“Significant” changes depend on the legislature

Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert said in this week’s study that lawmakers have a number of avenues to help.

“Our Oklahoma state legislature holds the key to significantly reducing the prison population, as most of these charges are state charges,” she said.

Blumert would like to see a change in the number of inmates being held in county jails, saying the only constitutional justification for detention is a reasonable belief that someone will not appear in court or a serious risk to public safety. Detaining those who do not fit this description costs additional taxpayers money, negatively affects detainees and disproportionately affects women and people of color, she said.

“A richer defendant can bond almost immediately, no matter if he poses a danger to the community,” Blumert said. “On the other hand, a less well-off accused can be held on bail, even for a non-violent offense.”

She proposed a revision of the narrowly rejected Senate Bill 252, which sought to individualize the amounts of the bond based not only on a person’s charges, but also on their ability to pay. The bill would also have mandated a 48-hour bail hearing for those not released and access to public counsel during that bail hearing.

Blumert also called on state lawmakers to invest in diversion options, while expanding the statutory powers of police, judges and district attorneys. Police should have greater capacity regarding citation and release options as alternatives to incarceration, and judges and prosecutors should have access to diversion options in conjunction with conditional bail, she said. .

“A lot of the programs that you talk about, I really believe we could do that and that would reduce your incarceration, as well as your incarceration in the state,” Humphrey said.

Facing a difficult struggle after liberation

Representative Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, participated in the study to examine the resources available to Oklahoma residents when they leave a penal institution and to look for ways in which the state can be more effective in helping liberated people to become productive members of society.

Rep. Ajay Pittman chats with Rep. Jason Lowe behind her during a press conference on Capitol Hill on April 19.  Pittman and Lowe conducted interim studies on criminal justice reform alongside Representative Justin Humphrey this week.

“Whether your goal is as deep as helping the human spirit or as simple as saving money on incarceration, helping the people of Oklahoma as they leave a facility State corrections can make all the difference in their reintegration into society, ”Pittman said.

Speakers on Monday’s study, including those released from incarceration, also highlighted how the current system can be improved. Once released, people face tasks that sometimes seem overwhelming, some speakers said. People generally do not have access to the documents they may need to request most basic services.

“A better back-to-school system would have helped me get back on my feet faster,” said Zeke Gonzales, advocate and founder of Celda 151, a non-profit gym that gives young people access to positive experiences.

Rhonda Bear, program director for women in transition at Stand in the Gap ministries, said in July that fees and fines further restrict a person’s ability to be productive. Oklahoma’s legal system provides for hundreds of fines and costs associated with a conviction, according to a report from the Vera Institute. These fines and fees create significant debt, prevent access to driver’s licenses and other services, and may even result in a repeat offense due to inability to pay.

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“When a person goes to jail it’s extremely scary and when a person gets out of jail it’s extremely scary,” Bear said. “You are afraid of failure, you are afraid of what you don’t know, you are afraid of assumptions.”

Several additional interim studies on criminal justice reform are planned by House members, according to Humphrey. A full list of upcoming House studies and videos of previous studies are available at okhouse.gov.


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