No easy answers to fixing justice system, expert says

The justice system in Oklahoma is broken, and there doesn’t appear to be an immediate way to fix it, an expert said last week.

Ryan Gentzler, an analyst for a Tulsa-based okpolicy.org, told members of the Canadian County Republic Party that Oklahoma continues send more people to jail each year than most other states, and in many cases it is the result of minor drug offenses.

He explained that several proposals that were heard in the state Legislature this session could have made a difference in the state’s justice system. However, they were never heard by the full legislative body.

Gentzel said crime in Oklahoma has actually dropped in the past decade. However, the number of people being sent to prison has continued to rise.

“Incarceration is a key tool. We lock people away for many reasons. We lock them away for committing crime, to deter them from committing crime and to punish them for what they have done. The question is at what point does that tool cross over into an area where it is no longer productive,” he asked.

Gentzel said Oklahoma may have crossed that point.

Gentzler said Oklahoma’s incarceration rate has climbed by more than 400 percent since the late 1970s. However, the crime rate is falling.

“Every additional person we incarcerate now doesn’t lower the crime rate,” he said.

Oklahoma has among the highest incarceration rates in the nation with 1,000 per 100,000 people in the state. That is about 40 percent higher than the national average, Gentzler said.

“We’ve gotten past the point where incarcerating people is making us safer,” he said.

CRIME PAYS

Because of Oklahoma’s struggling economy, Gentzler said, appropriations to the court system have fallen from nearly 40 percent in the early 2000s to just 5 percent today.

That means those who are being charged with crimes are paying to keep the system operating.

Fines remain nearly the same as they did in the early 2000s, but fees have been tacked on to help pay for additional services rendered through the court system.

An example is that a speeding ticket for 20 mph over the speed limit has risen more than 150 percent since 1992, mainly because of the added fees. The actual fine is about the same as it was 15 years ago.

Gentzler said many of those facing conviction of a crime can’t pay the fees.

In Canadian County, there is more than $14.9 million in court-related debt. Those are fees for felony and misdemeanor crimes that were assessed but haven’t been paid between 2011 and 2016.

In Tulsa County, failure to pay is the third most common reason that someone has been booked into jail.

“Dozens of agencies depend on the fines and fees,” Gentzler said. “We’ve gotten to the point where there are so many agencies that depend on these fees that it is difficult to lower them for someone who can’t pay.”

Gentzler said the amount of money owed in Canadian County totals about $200 per person in the county. “It is a huge burden on the population.”

And the fact that many can’t pay, means they often incur additional costs because they face arrest warrants.

“If they are caught, they will be brought to the county jail for failure to pay, but really it’s for being too poor to pay,” he said.

Asked about solutions, Gentzler said there are few options available.

A justice reform committee created by Gov. Mary Fallin made several suggestions to the legislature. However, they all were held over to the next legislative session.

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