On any given day, several thousand people in Oklahoma are sitting in county jails.
Many will post bail and be released within a few hours or days. Others are serving weeks or months-long sentences for probation violations or misdemeanor offenses. The remainder, unable to afford bail or deemed ineligible for pretrial release, will remain there until their case is 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’s much more difficult to identify larger trends and possible disparities in the pretrial justice system.
Oklahoma doesn’t collect data on the average jail stay or racial makeup of its detention centers. The state also doesn’t track decisions made by 27 district attorney’s offices, including the initial charging of crimes, plea agreements, and bail recommendations.
Lawmakers who support criminal justice reform say the absence of aggregate data makes it difficult to quantify and tackle a host of issues, from pretrial incarceration of nonviolent offenders to the availability of diversion programs in rural areas. They also argue the public would benefit from having more information on how their local justice systems are operating.
“All of our conversations on reform or alternatives to incarceration really are centered on emotion and not fact,” Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, said in an interview. “I, coming from a business background, feel like it’s important to get agnostic data that’s not bent to drive a conclusion, but rather inform and tell us what the heck is going on out there.”
In January Blancett filed House Bill 3848, which would require jail administrators, sheriffs, district attorneys and public defenders to send data to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services monthly by the end of 2024. The proposal lost momentum in early March and failed to advance past the House committee deadline. It will be eligible for consideration next year.
Rep. Logan Phillips, R-Mounds, worked with Blancett on the proposal. While the bill has numerous logistical obstacles to overcome, he said lawmakers plan to study the issue this summer and fall and return next year with revamped ideas.
“It would be incredible for transparency, but even more than the transparency and the engagement of our communities, we can actually discover what best practices are,” Phillips said. “If one 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’re really throwing spaghetti at a wall.”
Local justice systems have limited resources and must set enforcement priorities, said Ron Wright, a professor of criminal justice at Wake Forest University and expert in prosecutorial practices. This can cause disparities in charging and sentencing between counties and regions.
Wright, a former trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, said he could understand some elected officials being wary of submitting data because it could be misinterpreted or misunderstood.
“That’s an annoyance to have to explain what the data is really showing,” Wright said. “But the public deserves to make their choices and monitor how their choices are going. Criminal law enforcement is not just an automatic, fill-in-the-blank, ministerial kind of job. It’s something that involves real choices and values.”
Most Oklahoma district attorney’s races will be decided without a single vote this year. Of the state’s 27 district attorney races, all but four are uncontested.
Prosecutor races in rural areas are often less competitive simply because fewer attorneys live there, Wright said. But urban races may draw enhanced interest if aggregate data is compiled and made public, he added.
Models for Reform?
Such an undertaking requires funding, manpower and cooperation between agencies. Complicating the effort is the fact that many courts and jails are equipped with outdated technology.
“We generally underinvest in criminal courts,” Wright said. “When the computers arrive there, they’re older and slower, and the data we’re able to generate is less reliable.”
Florida lawmakers drew national praise in 2018 when they passed the Criminal Justice Data Transparency Act. Under the law, law enforcement officials in the state’s 67 counties are required to submit information on bond amounts, charging decisions, jail stays and plea agreements to the state every month.
While officials there struggled for years to meet deadlines and make the database public, it’s now accessible online.
Phillips, who chairs the House Technology Committee, said a similar effort in Oklahoma would likely take several years to complete. Many jails are still using paper-based data collection systems, he said.
“What works in other places seldom works in Oklahoma, especially with our belief that everything should be done at the local level,” he said. “Right now our technology doesn’t communicate and the paperwork doesn’t match up. So getting an office that can organize that and update everything, requires moving several large entities inside state government.”
While Blancett believes 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, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established a task force to study the cause of rising jail populations and recommend policy reforms. The task force, composed of district attorneys, judges, public defenders and policy experts, collected data from 20 sample counties and released a report less than a year later.
The task force found that jail admissions for parole violations and failure to appear warrants were driving population growth. They also noted racial disparities. While Black men made up just 6% of the resident population in the surveyed counties, they accounted for 29% of jail admissions.
The Michigan legislature passed 20 jail reform bills last year, including measures to reduce arrests in nonviolent misdemeanor cases and limit jail time and arrest warrants for technical probation violations.
“A Michigan-style approach would allow us to get a handle on what are possible alternatives to our incarceration system, and to identify some of the problems and the pain points that some of our county sheriffs are experiencing,” Blancett said. “With the passage of State Question 780 and 781, and us not funding the programs put forth, that’s caused a real problem. As a result, nobody really wants to talk about any further reform at all.”
Where Justice Bills Stand
Other bills saw promise but ultimately lost momentum.
A proposal to create a felony classification system with reduced sentencing ranges for some nonviolent crimes cleared the Senate but stalled in the House. House Bill 3294, which would require the state to utilize the funding formula outlined in State Question 781 and allocate funds to county justice systems annually, also stalled in the opposing chamber.
During floor debates and media interviews, some lawmakers have expressed concerns that the justice reform movement has gone too far at the expense of public safety. Oklahoma’s violent crime rate rose slighty 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 need to get beyond saying the reform people are trying to defund us, or 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 attempt to do. I think as a result of all this, I’ve been able to have healthy conservations with a number of people. Maybe we’ll get there.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss