OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties account for one-third of the state’s population, and close to half of all prison admissions statewide. These counties share similar demographics and economies, yet people navigating the criminal justice system in these areas experience markedly different outcomes. Oklahoma County sets higher felony bail amounts, issues longer prison sentences, and in FY 2021 sent three times as many people to prison as Tulsa County. Yet, Tulsa County’s crime rate has declined at three times the pace of Oklahoma County over the last five years.
A new issue brief, A Tale of Two Counties: Oklahoma County Lags Behind Tulsa County in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform from FWD.us, builds on the work of the recent report, Turning the Page: Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice Story, and examines the impact of recent criminal justice reforms within Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties.
“Geography plays an irrefutable role in the administration of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system — this is not a fair and equal system, nor does it create safer communities,” said jasmine Sankofa, Policy and Research Manager, Criminal Justice Reform, FWD.us. “Oklahoma County sets higher bail on felony cases, releases fewer people on their own recognizance, subjects more people to harmful pretrial detention, and in the end, sends more people to prison and for longer sentences. Oklahoma County, and the state, have shown that progress is possible, but more needs to be done now to make this system more fair, safe, and just.”
Some of the key findings include:
- Between 2017 and 2021, overall bookings into Oklahoma and Tulsa county jails each declined by nearly 40%, while the average daily population of each county’s jail declined by around 20%.
- The crime rate fell by 3.8% in Oklahoma County and 11.6% in Tulsa County from 2016 to 2020.
Although the progress was a step in the right direction, more needs to be done in both counties and across the state to create a safe, fair and just system.
Oklahoma’s county jails are the second deadliest in the country, driven in large part by the egregiously high rate of death in Oklahoma County jail that is more than triple the national average. This year alone, 14 people have already died in the Oklahoma County jail.
Pretrial detention has little or no public safety benefits for the vast majority of cases, and places people in harm’s way. In fact, people who are detained pretrial are more likely, rather than less, to be rearrested in the future because of the loss of jobs, housing, and the mental and physical impacts that leave them worse off than they went in.
Without equitable standards, Oklahomans are at the mercy of local police, judges, and prosecutors whose decisions can vary – from those made prior to a person’s arrest, to the discretion district attorneys use in determining charges and requesting enhanced punishments, and the power judges wield to set monetary bail and ultimately issue prison sentences. In FY 2021, Oklahoma County judges sent three times more people to prison than Tulsa County judges, and handed down substantially longer sentences (nearly 11 months longer).
The way bail is handled is dramatically different as well. Judges in Oklahoma County set significantly higher median bail on felony charges ($10,000) than their counterparts in Tulsa County ($5,000). Judges in Tulsa County set higher median bail on misdemeanor charges ($1,000) than those in the capital ($500). Because of this higher initial bond, Oklahoma County collected approximately $20 million more in pretrial felony bonds. Nearly two million dollars is paid each year across both counties in bond fees for cases that are ultimately dismissed.
“This issue brief highlights key evidence showing that longer, harsher prison sentences do not create safer communities,” Sankofa said. “While some differences between Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties are stark, it does show reforms have worked in Tulsa County and can work across the state.”
The issue brief can be viewed and downloaded here.