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County Officials Get Recommendations to Curtail Growing Tulsa Jail Population

Tulsa Jail

Tulsa County leaders learn how to reverse booming growth trends at the jail.

In 1970, the jail averaged 322 people a day. Last year, it averaged more than 1,500, and that’s straining the county budget.

Besides average daily population going up 383 percent, the incarceration rate has gone up 200 percent since 1970. County Commissioner Karen Keith said one of the most important things they can do is find more funding for the court services department.

"So, that's something we're going to need to look at and budget for in the future, but having that piece work more effectively, I think it's the piece of the puzzle that makes everything else work better going forward," Keith said.

Court services could tackle a number of the Vera Institute’s recommendations, including work to shift to a pretrial release system based on a person’s risk rather than bail. When someone can’t pay, they sit in jail until their case is resolved, at risk of losing their job and housing as days become weeks and months.

Chief Public Defender Corbin Brewster would like to see people charged with lower-level crimes like drug possession allowed to continue on with their lives while their cases are pending.

"It's a much more seamless process that way, and it really preserves the dignity of these individuals that otherwise were spending months incarcerated and losing everything," Brewster said.

Tulsa County’s pretrial detention rate is outpacing the rest of Oklahoma and the U.S.

The Vera Institute also said Tulsa County should reduce bookings and how long inmates stay on low-level charges, move cases along faster and reduce bookings for non-payment of fines and fees. Brewster said the study has broad local support.

"It's very promising. We're in a great position to have the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the local law enforcement agencies here and various other organizations that are involved in our system all on board with this," Brewster said.

Tulsa City Council approved a resolution supporting the Vera Institute's findings and recommendations late last month.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.