As we approach election year 2020, we will hear nearly every presidential, congressional and state office candidate talk about criminal justice reform. I fear that in the cacophony of political debate many otherwise alert and discerning people will tune out. The practical and moral imperatives of reform should be self-evident. But those of us who champion sensible reform measures have the burden of proof to convince voters and policymakers of the need for action. I accept that burden.

Let me focus on three areas, among many, that need immediate attention.

First, we need to once and for all dispel the fantasy that drug and alcohol addiction are forms of criminal behavior. The disease of addiction is a public health epidemic. The scope of this health care crisis, evident in many forms and in every community, demands intelligent and compassionate reform. In addition to changing antiquated laws that continue to address these public health issues as criminal conduct, we should redirect public funding into programs that achieve results. Reform comes in the form of funding for all levels of treatment programs for those uninsured or unable to pay (which are the vast majority): emergency detox intervention, inpatient treatment and outpatient counseling.

Second, setting aside the underlying moral issues, the criminal justice system as it is now implemented is ridiculously inefficient and expensive. It costs anywhere from $17,000 to $34,000 a year to lock up just one Oklahoma prisoner in one of the 37 facilities owned or contracted by the Department of Corrections. Multiply that by many years of incarceration and then add the cost of jail time while awaiting trial or serving out low-level criminal convictions in all 77 county jails. Pretty quickly you are talking about real money, largely wasted.

For those few truly dangerous people, kept apart and out of society, the money is necessarily spent. For the others, the vast majority, not so much. Programs that rehabilitate and divert defendants from prison, such as Women in Recovery, Drug Court, Veterans Court, Mental Health Court and 1st Step Male Diversion have proven their success. Yet they are largely ignored, year after year, in the legislative budget process. For the most part, they rely on private philanthropy, the kindness of strangers. Reform comes in the form of robust public funding for prison diversion programs.

Third, thousands of low-level defendants are locked up for not paying court fines and costs. The state as a creditor uses this strong-arm leverage to collect payment for such things as law enforcement training and salaries for bailiffs and court reporters. Jail would seem to be a powerful inducement to force someone to cough up cash. Student loan lenders and credit card companies would love to be able to call their local court clerk and have a warrant issued to arrest a defaulting debtor. Forget about annoying phone calls. The sheriff knocking on your front door is much more effective. Collateral damage comes from losing a job, getting evicted from public housing and the general inconvenience of being jailed.

But the fact is that there is no evidence to support the efficacy of fine and cost collection using these coercive methods. Given that under current law this money has to be collected, a new way of approaching this task is imperative. Reform comes in the form of a wholesale revision of Oklahoma fines and funding for government operations by legislative appropriation, not debtors’ prison extortion.

Shall I go on? I could talk about the replacement of cash bail with pretrial release programs, funding for more prosecutors (yes, the district attorney is an important player in the justice business) as well as public defenders, re-examining the scope of crimes that require incarceration for a minimum of 85% of the sentence, elimination of private for-profit prisons and robust support for Oklahoma’s mental health and substance abuse services agencies. The list is long but no match for Oklahoma common sense and tenacity.

If you are interested enough to be reading this newspaper, you should care about criminal justice reform. Salvaging otherwise discarded citizens makes Oklahoma communities more secure for those of us who are growing older here and more livable and attractive to our younger citizens who have so many options. And above all, new approaches to defining and addressing criminal behavior reflect deep-seeded Oklahoma moral and religious values. Our security comes from increasing the ranks of productive, tax-paying citizens. Criminal justice institutions and processes should not stand in the way.

William C. Kellough, a Tulsa attorney and former Tulsa County presiding district judge, is a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by board members appear in this space most weeks.


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