We can do better serving our fellow human beings. They are people. People with mental illness. People living in poverty. We can accomplish true criminal justice reform when we, individually and institutionally, work together for systemic change.
Each year, more than two million people with serious mental illness are admitted to jails across the United States(1). According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, Oklahoma ranks second in the overall incarceration rate, a clear indication that criminal justice reform is needed(2). The interconnectedness of a thriving community requires looking at the fiscal, collateral, and humanitarian consequences of incarceration, which are grave if we continue business as usual. I propose we fire our criminal justice system and redefine the business of incarceration.
A year ago, I wasn’t looking for a job, but through my work with All Soul’s Criminal Justice Outreach Team, fate brought me, not just a job but an incredible opportunity. Since July 2015, I have worked with Mental Health Association of Oklahoma on criminal justice reforms. In August 2015, Tulsa, Oklahoma signed on with the Stepping Up Initiative, a national initiative to reduce the number of people with mental illness in our jails (1). This position offers a platform to advocate passionately for these long overdue reforms, and to put my advocacy into action. Stepping Up’s advocacy work is multiplied by 297 other counties in the U.S. that have adopted the Initiative. In September 2016, I joined 17 other criminal justice reform and mental health advocates in Washington D.C. for the Behavioral Health & Justice Leadership Academy. Participating in this training provided leadership skills for promoting criminal justice reform, and technical assistance from national experts to advance Tulsa’s efforts.
The need for reform has brought about a city and organizational partnership. The City of Tulsa, The Mental Health Association Oklahoma, and several other social service providers have worked together to create the Special Services Docket. Often, homeless individuals are arrested for low-level crimes such as trespassing, jay-walking, and park curfew violations as a result of life on the street. Individuals who are arrested for these low-level crimes have an opportunity to break the incarceration cycle through the Special Services Docket. This voluntary docket offers participants a chance to be paired with a provider to work on addressing the issues that led to incarceration such as homelessness, lack of employment, food insecurity, etc. If participants work in good faith with the provider, stay in good communication with the court, and cease involvement of new crimes for six months there is a big reward. In addition to working with the provider to remove the barriers, upon graduation participants generally have all fines, fees, and charges dropped. Since its inception in 2014, it is estimated the City of Tulsa has saved over 9,000 days in jail and $700,000 in jail costs. This is one example of how effective collaboration can achieve meaningful and impactful reforms.
Another example is the Outside Inside Collaboration for Justice program which brings together the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, social service and behavioral health providers, and other key stakeholders in the local justice system. This summer, the National Institute of Corrections traveled to Tulsa County to provide guidance in implementing a model known as Transition from Jail to Community. The goal is to improve public safety and reintegration outcomes by creating an integrated, system-wide approach to delivering support and services to people released from jail. (3)
I believe that with continued advocacy for reform from nontraditional partnerships, Tulsa will become a community that achieves increased positive outcomes while more effectively utilizing scarce resources for people impacted by homelessness, mental illness, and incarceration. The potential financial impact is substantial. In April of 2016, the White House issued the Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System cost-benefit analysis for criminal justice policy reform. Economic Perspectives indicates increases in law enforcement size, educational attainment or graduation rates can result in a 10 to 20 percent decrease in crime rates(4).
The report, Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education, issued by the U.S. Department of Education found that in Oklahoma, there was a 485 percent increase in incarceration in jails and prisons between 1980 and 2013. (5)
One way to understand this increase is to take a realistic look at how poverty can, in effect, lead to incarceration. An Oklahoman child growing up in poverty is more likely to be exposed to multiple traumatic events such physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Living in constant instability—fearful, in need of a safe environment, not having basic needs met—can create grave difficulties in a child’s education. As the child approaches the teenage years, those exposed to trauma commonly to turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate to cope with their trauma, pain, and fear. Another effect on poverty-stricken youth was reported by USA Today in the article, Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children.
One in 14 children in poverty has at least one parent behind bars(6). When these children come of age, they are more likely to be incarcerated themselves. Criminal justice reforms such as the Special Services Docket, the Stepping Up Initiative, and Transition from Jail to Community are just a few examples of how reform can change lives.
As a Unitarian, I’m passionate about reform and want to see a world with a thriving community in which the fiscal, collateral, and humanitarian consequences of mass incarceration are discontinued. This is why I do what I do, why I support the All Souls Criminal Justice Outreach Team, and why I say we must fire the current justice system. We can do better serving our fellow humans beings. They are people. People with mental illness. People living in poverty. We can accomplish true criminal justice reform when we, individually and institutionally, work together for systemic change.
- “The Stepping Up Initiative.” The Stepping Up Initiative. Accessed November 23, 2016. https://stepuptogether.org/.
- Gentzler, Ryan. “What’s Driving Oklahoma’s Prison Population Growth?” Oklahoma Policy Institute. February 9, 2016. Accessed November 23, 2016. http://okpolicy.org/whats-driving-prison-population-growth.
- “Module 1: Getting Started.” Transition from Jail to Community | Getting Started. Accessed November 23, 2016. http://tjctoolkit.urban.org/.
- “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System.” Whitehouse.gov. April 23, 2106. Accessed November 23, 2016.
- “Report: Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education.” Report: Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education | U.S. Department of Education. July 7, 2016. Accessed November 23, 2016. http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/report-increases-spending-corrections-far-outpace-education.
- Eversley, Melanie. “Report: One in 14 Children Has Had Incarcerated Parent.” USA Today. October 27, 2015. Accessed November 23, 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/10/27/report-one-14-children-have-had-incarcerated-parent/74663774/.