County Jail Series: Leaders look to Texas for ways to improve criminal justice system

County Jail Series: Leaders look to Texas for ways to improve criminal justice system
Mark Hancock
A graduate student in Harvard University's public policy program, Adam Luck, stands next to the Oklahoma County Jail, 10-8-15.

Editor’s note: This is the seventh and final installment of an ongoing series about Oklahoma County Jail, its development and history, ongoing structural issues and possible remedies. Visit for ongoing coverage and more of this story.

Nearly anyone you ask who works in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system will tell you the state’s system needs have improved locally and across the state.

Members of a criminal justice reform task force formed by Gov. Mary Fallin need only look to Texas for ideas.

There, state leaders embarked on a bold experiment as they grappled with predictions that its prison population would continue its explosive growth.

Rather than spend billions to build new lockups, in 2007, they instead opted to use $241 million to beef up treatment and probationary programs for adult offenders and, after reviewing its juvenile system, also dramatically shifted funding toward rehabilitation efforts.

Today, Texas lawmakers and other elected leaders, with help from Texas Public Policy Foundation, continue reforming its criminal justice system and have seen positive results.

At the end of 2014, Texas’ prison population was 166,043, its lowest since 2002 and down from an all-time high of 173,649 set in 2010, according to The Texas Tribune’s Sept. 25 story “Dip in Texas Prison Population Continues Trend.”

Since 2007, the state has closed three adult prisons and numerous juvenile housing facilities.

Now, Texas Public Policy Foundation brings its effort north of the Red River to help Oklahoma lawmakers and elected leaders accomplish similar results. Its project point man is one who already knows about this state’s earlier reform efforts and said he is eager to pursue it further.

As a graduate student in Harvard University’s public policy program, Broken Arrow native Adam Luck returned to Oklahoma in 2014 to look at its Justice Reinvestment Initiative. After interviewing numerous players in the state’s criminal justice system, he wrote a report for Fallin that outlined ways to move the effort forward.

For his graduate thesis, he also wrote about Texas’ criminal justice reforms and what he thought Oklahoma could learn from them.

Luck admitted he wouldn’t blame anyone for being skeptical about reform.

But he said the timing seems right, from the halls of Oklahoma’s Capitol to localities such as Oklahoma City, where he met with government officials and business and faith leaders about overcrowding and violence at Oklahoma County Jail.

“They are asking whether or not building a new county jail might really address the problem and whether there are things we could do to actually address some of the root causes of the growth we have experienced [there],” Luck said.

Michele Deitch, an attorney who studies criminal justice and is a law school senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees root causes need to be examined as part of any jail improvement effort.

Deitch has worked with numerous counties on overcrowding issues and said each must carefully consider its own situation in order to develop the best alternatives to incarceration.

Oklahoma County should start, she said, by learning who its inmates are and whether they can instead enter diversion programs.

“If citations could be used rather than arrests for low-level offenses, that wouldn’t tie up nearly as much jail space or court time,” Deitch said.

For example, she said the county might consider taking an intoxicated person to a detox center rather than jail or using law enforcement crisis intervention teams to de-escalate situations with mentally disabled people and get them into treatment.

Deitch described them as “system-type solutions” in which law enforcement officers, courts, prosecutors and attorneys work together to develop and implement diversion programs.

Also, a county must find ways to efficiently release segments of its jail population.

Thought should be given to whether bail schedules are reasonable and if bail hearings are held in a timely manner, Deitch said. A detainee who can’t make bond should be brought before a judge to determine if there is a way to help them.

“If the only pretrial release game in town involves bail bondsmen, you’ve got a problem,” she said.

She added that there are many effective and public safety- conscious ways to release detainees.

For example, inmates with homes, jobs or families can often be released safely without conditions while awaiting trial, while others might only need ankle monitors before court dates. Others diagnosed with alcohol or drug problems could be referred to treatment programs that require them to report to pretrial services officers.

Some might only need daily check-in or court date reminders as they look for work or receive other social services.

Deitch believes a robust pretrial release program could make those evaluations and release people into minimal or intensive supervision programs.

“There are only two reasons people should be held in jail before their trial. One is there is a serious risk they won’t re-appear for their court date; the other is they are charged with an offense that is so serious they pose risk to the community’s safety,” she said. “If they are not being held for one of those two reasons, then the county should be looking for ways to get them out. … Until you’ve done that jail population analysis, you are putting the cart before the horse when you are talking about building something new.”

When it comes to state prisons, committees working as part of Fallin’s task force are likely having similar discussions.

The four committees examine policing, prison and re-entry programs, sentencing and inmate drug and alcohol treatment programs. They began meeting in May and will report to Fallin in November. The task force as a whole also is putting together a plan for Oklahoma’s Legislature to consider in 2016.

Luck will be there to help, armed with information about programs proven to work in Texas.

For example, Texas requires counties to develop alternative programming to keep people out of jail and state prisons and uses a carrot-and-stick approach to limit the number of persons counties can send to prison.

Counties within allowed guidelines are awarded additional state dollars to fund alternative programs, and counties that don’t meet guidelines must pay the state for their additional prison beds.

“It creates accountability because it lets the state know what counties are sending more people every year to state prisons without developing alternative resources,” Luck said. “And it gives the counties incentive, both positive and negative, to begin to change how they think about bringing people into their jails and send them to state prison.”

Another significant piece, he said, is rewriting Oklahoma’s criminal code to redefine many of today’s felonies in which punishment only requires a fine as misdemeanors.

“You have to change your statutes, and you have to provide some amount of resources. But you also have to provide a reason for the counties to actually implement these changes,” he said. “That is probably what you will have to see happen here.”

In Oklahoma, Luck said, reforms can be made if county and state leaders work together.

Committees have eight to 15 members each from across party lines and throughout the state, many work for a county and each has expertise in the area being studied.

“They all are focused on how their area affects criminal justice in the state and how can we change it for the better,” Luck said. “That’s huge.”

Print Headline: Beat Texas, County, city and state leaders look to Texas for ways to improve our criminal justice system.

EDITING NOTE: Edits were made Oct. 20, 2015, to clarify Michele Deitch's role and when inmates might most benefit from ankle monitors and without conditions. — Ed.

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