“Where’s the data?” 

I ask myself this question every time I’m developing a story idea. Good data helps tell the story of where we’ve been, where we’re at and where we’re going. It can reveal disparities and areas for improvement. 

Some justice data in Oklahoma, such as the state prison population, is regularly tabulated and made public. Other information, particularly at the pretrial level, is difficult or impossible to come by. Examples include average county jail stays and charging decisions made by district attorneys.

In my latest Oklahoma Watch story, I examine why the state isn’t collecting this data and how the information could bolster legislative reform efforts and public transparency.

The scarcity of data has frustrated some state lawmakers who support criminal justice reform. They hear stories of disparities from a variety of stakeholders but often don’t have numbers to back those claims up. 

“How are we supposed to know if we need mental health courts in the panhandle or drug courts in Southeastern Oklahoma.” State Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, told me in an interview last week. “Until such time as we have that kind of data, we are guessing.” 

This year Blancett filed a bill that would require jail administrators, county sheriffs, district attorneys and public defenders throughout the state to report data by the end of 2024. It lost momentum in early March and failed to advance past a committee deadline. 

The proposal, which is eligible to be considered again next year, has several hurdles to overcome. Many of Oklahoma’s district courts and jails are using outdated technology and would need time and support to begin reporting data. State officials would have to develop a reliable system to receive and publish the information. 

In states that have started collecting more justice data, researchers say the benefits are plentiful. Lawmakers can use the information to craft better policies. Members of the public can use it to identify trends and evaluate how their local justice system is working. 

Have questions or thoughts about justice data transparency? What data would you like access to? Let me know on Twitter or email me at Kross@OklahomaWatch.org

What I’m Reading This Week:

  • Oklahomans Take to the Streets for Peace, Unity and Second Chances: Formerly incarcerated people and justice reform advocates took to the streets in Oklahoma City on May 1, to raise awareness of issues that face people coming out of the justice system. [The Oklahoman]
  • Working in “A Meat Grinder”: A Research Roundup Showing Prison and Jail Jobs Aren’t All That States Promise They Will Be: Correctional officers face negative mental and physical health outcomes, including extremely high rates of depression and PTSD. Staffing shortages exacerbate these issues. [Prison Policy Initiative]
  • Viewpoint: Why Solitary Confinement Should Be a Banned Practice in Oklahoma Prisons: Oklahoma is one of several states that permits solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for prisoners that misbehave. Columnist Kaelee Spencer makes the case that there are better alternatives. [The Oklahoman]

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From the impact of COVID-19 behind bars to the effects of prison gerrymandering, my reporting focuses on how Oklahoma’s criminal justice system impacts people inside and outside of the system. It can take weeks or months for me to file public records requests, dig into documents and track down sources. As a nonprofit news organization, we rely on your financial support to do this time-consuming but important work. Help us make a difference.

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