March 27, 2011

DAs Support Alternatives to Prison

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Emily Linville talks with Judge Sarah Smith's inside her courtroom in downtown Tulsa on Jan. 10, 2011. After two years of being clean, Linville will graduate drug court next month. Linville fought an addiction to Lortab pills and was caught and given the option of attending treatment and drug court.

Adam Wisneski/Tulsa World

Emily Linville talks with Judge Sarah Smith's inside her courtroom in downtown Tulsa on Jan. 10, 2011. After two years of being clean, Linville will graduate drug court next month. Linville fought an addiction to Lortab pills and was caught and given the option of attending treatment and drug court.

Comanche County District Attorney Fred C. Smith spoke to a local civic group recently about the ever-increasing role new technology and alternative sentencing will play in the criminal courts.

Fifteen years ago that talk probably never happens.

“I’m a prosecutor,” Smith said recently in a tidy Lawton office buzzing with activity. “That’s what I’ve been trained to do—prosecute. But district attorneys are being asked to do more and more every year. Our roles have evolved over the last 20 years.

“Now we’re also being asked to be social workers.”

Prosecutors today carry the burden of choosing from a variety of nontraditional sentencing options, many of which stretch far beyond their areas of expertise. Options now can range from drug court assignments to mental health and anger management counseling.

GPS monitoring devices for sex offenders, alcohol monitoring bracelets and drug patches are some of the newer tools being introduced into the complex web that is the probation system.

By all accounts the evolution of alternative sentencing is a necessity borne from prison overcrowding and shrinking state budgets. In Oklahoma—a conservative state that prides itself on tough talk and swift justice—it has created the inevitable dilemma.

Being tough on crime comes with a price.

“What’s the answer?” Jerry Massie, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman, asked rhetorically. “Build more prisons.”

New state prisons won’t be built any time soon. The state’s present financial landscape is a mess, and agencies across Oklahoma are bracing for another round of budget cuts.

The 4,100 Oklahoma Department of Corrections employees are now all required to take one furlough day a month—a move that saves the state $600,000, Massie noted. Before the end of this month, agency employees might be required to take two additional days off a month without pay.

“The problem is we’re asking for a $9 million supplemental this year to meet our budget needs,” Massie said. “But it’s always been difficult for us to get the necessary resources. Eleven of the last 13 years we’ve had to ask the legislature for supplemental money.”

Oklahoma’s prison population has swelled by nearly 9,000 inmates in that time.

Today the state prison population hovers around 26,600, including some 1,300 inmates backed up in county jails. The total incarceration numbers account for 96.5 percent of the department’s bed capacity. State medium- and minimum-security prisons are running about 99.1 percent and 98.2 percent full, respectively.

“Generally speaking, anytime you’re running over 96 percent, that’s not good,” Massie said. “That leaves very little room for emergencies.”

Alleviating Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons will be no easy task, if, in fact, it can be accomplished. On that point, there appears to be no debate.

“I think everyone would agree something has to be done,” said Gene Christian, executive director of the state Office of Juvenile Affairs. “It’s just going to take some creative thinking.”

Christian served as Stephens County’s district attorney from 1991 to 2006 before moving into his current position. Like Smith, he witnessed dramatic change in the district attorney’s office and the emergence of alternative sentencing.

Christian also watched as the truth-in-sentencing campaign took root in 1997, requiring certain offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole. Politicians started by targeting 11 offenses, but eventually that number ballooned to more than 20 today.

The end result has been a logjam of inmates in Oklahoma prisons.

Christian suggests a far simpler approach.

“I’ve long believed we should be stricter on our first-time offenders,” Christian said. “Those are the people you still have a chance to rehabilitate. Instead, we tend to deal with offenders incrementally until they’re so far gone there’s little hope.”

In time, Christian became a fan of drug court—a last-chance opportunity for drug offenders to avoid prison and turn their lives around.

“I always thought drug courts were productive,” Christian said. “In reality, it’s a stricter form of probation because participants are strictly monitored and held accountable for their actions.

“Drug courts also allow problems to be handled at a county level. In the future, I think we could benefit from other similar county-based programs. But like anything else, it’s going to take money to establish and run these programs.”

Smith agrees.

Comanche County—Oklahoma’s fourth largest populated county—can now only afford 35 participants at a time in its drug court, Smith said. Participants are monitored by one full-time supervisor, who is required to make periodical home visits.

“If the state could provide additional money for another supervisor, I’d be happy to expand our drug court,” Smith said. “But as it stands now, our one supervisor is handling just about all he can handle with 36 participants. That’s more than a full-time job right there.”

Yet programs such as drug court might be the first step in breaking an individual’s criminal cycle.

“I’m a huge supportive of drug court,” said Jackson County District Attorney John Wampler, also the Oklahoma District Attorney Councils chairman. “I’ve seen a lot of success stories come out of it … the problem we have is a lot of legislators want to see immediate results, and so there is a reluctance to put money into certain programs. They’re not looking at the long-range dividends.

“For instance, we always release someone from prison and watch them struggle to get back on their feet. Eventually, they go back to their old ways. That’s all they know. We need to give them the tools so when they do get out, they have the skills to find a job and lead productive lives. That’s how you make real change.”

A lot of prosecutors contend that the lack of staffing for new programs—or more precisely the money to pay for those programs—remains a roadblock to true criminal reform.

Oklahoma’s probation system is fertile ground for such a debate. Some 256 probation and parole officers oversee the 23,017 people in the state Department of Corrections’ probation system, meaning officers are on average juggling about 90 clients at any given time. More district officials are thus turning to new technology to maximize their probation needs.

Smith, still reputed as a no-nonsense prosecutor, is one prosecutor who is embracing new technology. Alternative sentencing options he has initiated include the alcohol monitoring system, the drug patch, GPS monitoring and mental health court.

“We have to be smarter about how we do things,” Smith stressed. “If the technology is there, and it makes legal and fiscal sense, why not utilize it?”

The problem is every conversation about alternative sentencing, an effective probation process, and jail overcrowding seems to circle back to the issue of money. The tug-of-war is never-ending.

“Frankly, the vast majority of law enforcement and those of us in the justice system want to do the right thing,” Smith said. “We’re simply underfunded.”

Wampler wholeheartedly agrees with Smith’s conclusion.

“Obviously, there is only so much money to go around,” Wampler said. “But I think the people of this state will listen to what we have to say as long as there’s a sensible approach, and prosecutors have worked real hard to provide some answers.”

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