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A tale of three counties

Sentencing disparities reveal the depth of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis

Oklahoma County assistant public defender Francie Ekwerekwu


There are 77 counties in Oklahoma—each with its own culture. Football mascots, greasy spoon diners, hipster bars, oil pipelines, and churches are all little pieces of that culture.

Ultimately, a culture is just a collection of stories. It’s the continuous conversation a civilization has with itself. We tell deeply human stories about the Oklahomans who inhabit certain parts of our community. Then there are the stories we do not tell—those of the people our culture has conspired to keep invisible.

According to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, Oklahoma became the most incarcerated state in America in 2016—with 1,300 of every 100,000 adults locked behind bars. In a country representing 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but 22 percent of its prisoners, Oklahomans are now the most incarcerated people on the planet.

This story has been shaped as much by geography as politics. Urban, rural, and suburban communities have entirely different criminal justice systems, and zip code is often the best determinate of how long an Oklahoman goes to prison.  

About 32 percent of the incarcerated people in Oklahoma are in our local jails, and many of those people are locked up even though they haven’t been found guilty of a crime. They’re often just stuck in the court process. The story of police, prisons, and people in these Oklahoma counties is a microcosm of the larger story of why so many people end up incarcerated in America.

Tulsa County

Jill Webb is a public defense attorney in Tulsa County. In 2003, she went to a predominantly African American church in Chicago and felt called by God to become a public defender.

“My friend and I were the only ones in that particular service who happened to be white,” she said. “In the middle of her sermon, the minister said ‘Raise your hand if you know somebody who is in jail,’ and every hand went up except mine and my friends [. . .] Then she said, ‘Keep your hands up if that person had a good lawyer,’ and every hand went down.”

That service changed Webb’s life. She became a public defender in Cook County in Chicago before eventually moving to Tulsa. Webb learned the peculiar realities of Tulsa’s justice system up close.

“If you get arrested for a felony in Tulsa, and you can’t make your bond that first day, then you’ll be in jail for six days,” Webb said. “That’s how long it takes for a person to even be assigned a lawyer, because there are so many cases. Then, once you get a lawyer, it’s usually another three days before you can get a hearing to reduce your bond or even come before a judge. That’s nine days in David L. Moss [Tulsa’s county jail] before the process has even started.”

What happens to a single mother struggling to pay her bills when she goes to jail in Tulsa County and misses nine days with her job and her kids? She’s likely to lose her job and be shoved through a revolving door of court fees and fines, then arrested repeatedly for the crime of being unable to pay.

Tulsa is fortunate, however, to be a large, relatively urban community which has seen an infusion of local investment in alternatives to jail for those experiencing mental health issues, homelessness, and substance abuse. Programs like the Lindsey House and the Kaiser Foundation’s Women in Recovery have been very successful at keeping mothers out of prison and eventually reuniting them with their kids.       

“One of the things Tulsa County does well is having a more integrated treatment system than other parts of Oklahoma—[which] the police, judges and district attorneys are all starting to become brought into,” said Webb. “I think a lot of people in law enforcement in Tulsa are starting to proactively look for alternatives to prison. The racial disparities in the Tulsa jail are still pretty profound, but folks at places like Family and Children’s Services are genuinely making a difference in people’s lives every day.”

Muskogee County

Less than 50 miles away in Muskogee County, the story is quite different. Many of its towns, like Haskell and Beggs, are small and rural. Though the population of Muskogee County is around five percent of Tulsa’s population, it had the second-highest felony filings per capita of any county in Oklahoma in 2015 according to a report by the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Prosecutors are charging more people with felonies, on average, and those individuals are often serving longer sentences. Some towns in Muskogee County, like Fort Gibson, have made slight investments in substance abuse treatment and alternatives to prison in recent years, but many places simply lack the resources to send addicts anywhere but prison.

Last July, The Pavillion—an inpatient, acute psychiatric crisis unit in Muskogee—was forced to close after its provider contract was terminated. Patients in need of behavioral health treatment were either transferred to Laureate, a relatively expensive provider in Tulsa, or sent home. There is only one other mental health crisis unit in Muskogee, run by Green Country Behavioral Health Services (GCBHS).

GCBHS chief executive officer Joy Sloan considers the unit’s closing endemic of the challenges faced in this region. “Anytime you lose a big community partner like that—no question, there is harm to the community,” she said.

Meth and cocaine have been major drivers of incarceration in southwestern Oklahoma, and the opioid crisis has exacerbated these problems. Many of the most at-risk people in small communities are addicts who desperately want help, but who just can’t find treatment anywhere near where they live.

“The Pavillion was able to hold someone for 23 hours and 59 minutes before they were admitted to a hospital,” Sloan said. “So for people that are maybe intoxicated, maybe need to sober up over a few hours and then they’re OK—or maybe someone has experienced an event that’s left them despondent, and they need to be kept safe for a few hours. Anytime during that 24 hours, they can decide to admit them or send them to outpatient services or a higher level of care. I think we’re going to feel the effects of that more than the loss of the inpatient care.”

It’s hard to overestimate what the absence of these services does to a community. Crime rates often rise as municipalities lose investments in mental health services. This leads to rural towns and cities where the largest local mental health provider is often the local jail.

Oklahoma County

Francie Ekwerekwu is an assistant public defender in Oklahoma County—home of Oklahoma City, Edmond, Midwest City, and Bethany, to name a few. She’s also a site supervisor at The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), an outreach group serving formerly-incarcerated people in the OKC area.

TEEM advocates for jobs and job training for hundreds of people with criminal justice involvement around OKC. The sheer size of Oklahoma County creates jail conditions which often seem like some type of fatalistic trap.

“When you’re arrested in Oklahoma County—depending on the day of the week, and how busy the jail is that day—on average, it can actually be a 6-12 hour process before you’re booked in officially,” Ekwerekwu explained. “Once you’re booked, you’re placed in another area where you can get dressed into the jail clothing and you wait to get a assigned to a cell.”

There are 13 floors at the Oklahoma County Jail. The jail is so busy that it takes about 48 hours before most people get arraigned, and that arraignment happens via video conference with a judge. There are so many people at the jail every day that it would be physically impossible to transport everyone to a hearing, and there aren’t any judges or magistrates in the building.

The judge at your arraignment is often the first person who explains in detail what you’ve been arrested for, though not necessarily what the district attorney has charged you for. The DA may not have formally charged you with anything in the first 48 hours. Often a judge on a video monitor just tells you what crime you were arrested for, and you’re given a bond based on that.

“It may be at the four-day mark, or the six-day mark, or even eight days before the district attorney explains what your official charges are,” Ekwerekwu said. “Our rule is that, after ten days with no charges, Judge McCray releases those defendants. It’s really up to you to keep checking with your bondsman, or keep checking online through OSCN, to see if charges have actually been filed based on your arrest.”

If you’re charged in Oklahoma County before the end of that ten days, then you have to bond out of jail to get out.

“If you don’t qualify for any of the bonds that get you out on your own recognizance, or if you just can’t afford to pay your bond, you sit there until your next court date,” Ekwerekwu said. “Generally that next court date is not for another 30 days, because the court system is so backed up. Our public defenders usually don’t attach until around that 30-day mark.”

Many poor and homeless inmates who don’t qualify for bond release programs will sit in jail for more than 30 days in Oklahoma County before they’re even assigned a public defender. Judges often won’t appoint a public defender to people with full time jobs, no matter how much an inmate makes per hour, because they don’t want to overwhelm the public defenders’ caseloads—and the need for public defenders is astronomically high.

Sometimes inmates will hire someone briefly just to get themselves a continuance, so they can go work their job long enough to hire an attorney full time. How long you stay in jail is often determined by how much money you make.

The set of facts governing these realities is overwhelming. Race, poverty, and a natural concern for public safety are all factors that created this system. It’s difficult to see how our community is helped by locking up someone’s mom or dad for being a drug addict, or—more vexingly—for simply being poor.

D’Marria Monday works as a client advocate at Still She Rises, a non-profit, holistic public defender’s office in Tulsa. “Because I am formerly incarcerated, I’ve been through a lot of the things that our clients have been through,” Monday said. “We have to start thinking about how our justice system affects a whole community—what it does to the children whose parents are gone, or whole neighborhoods dealing with historic and unresolved trauma. I strive to bring trauma-informed care to women in prison. Because a lot of women who are justice-involved have been through trauma, and that trauma is often the root cause of their incarceration. Without that root cause being dealt with, the cycle continues.”

Systems have inertia. It’s hard to alter the trajectory of these long-standing problems, but many district attorneys and public defenders in Oklahoma are seeking more compassionate and practical alternatives to incarceration. Justice outcomes shouldn’t look different by county. We should be able to lock up violent bad guys without making our cities worse. There’s reasonable bipartisan argument to be had on this issue, but we should all be able to agree that a city shouldn’t be defined by the inequities of its jails.

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