Every day, several thousand people in Oklahoma are incarcerated in county jails.
Many will post bail and be released within hours or days. Others are serving sentences of weeks or months for probation violations or misdemeanors. Others, unable to post bail or deemed ineligible for bail, will remain there until their cases are resolved.
The outcome of a single case is simple to track, either through an online records service like the Oklahoma State Courts Network or by obtaining records in person. It is much more difficult to identify major trends and possible disparities in the justice system before the trial.
Oklahoma does not collect data on the average prison stay or the racial makeup of its detention centers. The state is also not following decisions made by 27 district attorney’s offices, including the original indictment of crimes, plea agreements and bail recommendations.
Lawmakers who support criminal justice reform say the lack of aggregate data makes it difficult to quantify and address a host of issues, from the temporary incarceration of nonviolent offenders to the availability of diversion programs in rural areas. They also argue that the public would benefit from having more information about how their local justice systems work.
“All of our conversations about reform or alternatives to incarceration are really about emotion and not facts,” Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, said in an interview. “I, coming from a business background, think it’s important to get agnostic data that’s not meant to draw a conclusion, but rather to inform us and tell us what’s going on out there. .”
In January, Blancett filed Bill 3848, which would require prison administrators, sheriffs, district attorneys and public defenders to send data to the Office of Management and Business Services every month by the end of 2024. The proposal lost momentum in early March and failed to make it past the House committee deadline. He will be eligible next year.
Representative Logan Phillips, R-Mounds, worked with Blancett on the proposal. Although the bill has many logistical hurdles to overcome, he said lawmakers plan to study the issue this summer and fall and come back next year with revamped ideas.
“It would be amazing for transparency, but even more so than transparency and engaging our communities, we can actually find out what the best practices are,” Phillips said. “If a county is doing something incredibly effective in criminal justice reform, then we can take that data and implement those methods in other counties. Without having the data, you are really throwing spaghetti at a wall. »
Local justice systems have limited resources and need to prioritize enforcement, said Ron Wright, a professor of criminal justice at Wake Forest University and an expert in prosecution practices. This can lead to disparities in charging and sentencing between counties and regions.
Wright, a former general counsel for the US Department of Justice, said he can understand some elected officials being reluctant to submit data because it could be misinterpreted or misunderstood.
“It’s boring having to explain what the data really shows,” Wright said. “But the public deserves to make their choices and watch how their choices evolve. Criminal law enforcement is not just an automatic, fill-in-the-blank departmental task. It’s something that involves real choices and real values.
Most of Oklahoma’s district attorney races will be decided without a single vote this year. Of the state’s 27 district attorney races, all but four are uncontested.
Attorney races in rural areas are often less competitive simply because fewer attorneys live there, Wright said. But urban races can attract increased interest if aggregate data is compiled and made public, he added.
Obstacles to Oklahoma joining other states as a model of reform
A handful of states, including Florida and Connecticut, have passed sweeping criminal justice data transparency laws in recent years.
Such an undertaking requires funds, manpower and inter-agency cooperation. To complicate the effort, many courts and prisons are equipped with outdated technology.
“We generally underinvest in criminal courts,” Wright said. “When the computers get there, they’re older and slower, and the data we’re able to generate is less reliable.”
Florida lawmakers garnered national praise in 2018 when they passed the Criminal Justice Data Transparency Act. By law, law enforcement officials in all 67 counties across the state are required to submit monthly information to the state on bail amounts, charging decisions, jail stints and plea agreements.
While officials there have struggled for years to meet deadlines and make the database public, it is now accessible online.
Phillips, who chairs the House Technology Committee, said a similar effort in Oklahoma would likely take several years. Many prisons still use paper-based data collection systems, he said.
“What works in other places rarely works in Oklahoma, especially with our belief that everything has to be done locally,” he said. “Right now our technology is not communicating and the documents are not matching. So in order to get an office that can organize that and bring it all up to date, you have to move several large entities within the state government.
While Blanchett thinks creating a comprehensive public criminal justice database is the best long-term solution, she said a model adopted by Michigan could provide answers more quickly.
In 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer established a task force to study the cause of the prison population increase and recommend policy reforms. The task force, made up of district attorneys, judges, public advocates and policy experts, collected data from 20 sample counties and released a report less than a year later.
The task force found that prison admissions for parole violations and failure to appear for warrants were driving the population growth. They also noted racial disparities. While black men made up only 6% of the resident population in the counties surveyed, they accounted for 29% of prison admissions.
The Michigan Legislature passed 20 prison reform bills last year, including measures to reduce arrests in non-violent misdemeanor cases and limit prison sentences and arrest warrants for technical probation violations.
“A Michigan-style approach would allow us to understand what possible alternatives to our incarceration system are and identify some of the issues and pain points that some of our county sheriffs are experiencing,” Blancett said. “With the passage of State Questions 780 and 781, and the fact that we were not funding the programs that were offered, this caused a real problem. As a result, no one really wants to talk about any further reform.
Where are Oklahoma’s court bills?
Advocates of justice reform have had some successes this legislative session, including the passage of bills simplifying the expungement process and reducing fines and costs in criminal cases.
Other bills looked promising but eventually lost momentum.
A proposal to create a felony classification system with reduced sentencing ranges for certain non-violent crimes was approved by the Senate but stalled in the House. House Bill 3294, which would require the state to use the funding formula outlined in State Question 781 and allocate funds to county justice systems each year, also stalled in the opposing chamber. .
During floor proceedings and media interviews, some lawmakers expressed concern that the justice reform movement has gone too far at the expense of public safety. Oklahoma’s violent crime rate increased slightly in 2020, following national trends.
Blancett, who has advocated for bail reform legislation since being elected in 2016, believes reform advocates and law enforcement officials could find common ground if data is compiled.
“We have to go beyond saying that the reformers are trying to get us out of funding, or that the district attorneys are just throwing people in jail willy-nilly and they don’t care if they’re guilty. or not,” Blancett said. “That’s what I was trying to try to do. I think as a result of all of that, I was able to have healthy conversations with a number of people. We might get there. »
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public policy issues facing the state.