Some years ago, I read a piece about nuclear-testing "tourism" in 1950s era Nevada -- an exotic, early form of what we'd call adventure tourism today. The Silver State was the venue for much of America's atomic weapons development program. Tour operators and major hotels would drive their guests to detonation viewing sites constructed by the U.S. military: stands that allowed the visitors to watch atomic bomb tests. And while the organizers of these tours thought they were engaging in safe practices, it turns out that many of the guests later came down with cancers and other illnesses with statistically wild frequencies -- rates consistent with heightened radiation exposure. Our obsession with putting people away and "throwing away the key" has the same kind of disconnect to public safety.
Just now, City Hall and the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners are in a tussle over cost sharing at Tulsa's increasingly out-of-control jail. The exchange goes to discover a solution on how to resolve overcrowding and billowing expenses at our David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center (DLMCJC)-- T-Town's primary jail operation. Readers might recall that this facility used dollars from a special sales tax referendum in the mid '90s. DLMCJC, which was then the most expensive public facility in city history, consumed about $80 million. Set up to hold up to 1,700 prisoners, its average daily population of late has been close to 2,000, spawning a prodigious range of staffing, bed, bathroom, kitchen, and health problems, causing enormous chaos. And because beds at DLMCJC are not always available, county deputies and Tulsa police officers often have to babysit prisoners, leading to much overtime and diverting officers from primary tasks.
According to Professor Steven Duke of Yale Law School, since the start of the drug war in the '70s, our society has been on a jailing binge. And neuro guru and social analyst Steven Pinker has amassed a huge array of evidence strongly suggesting that our society -- and the planet -- is less violent today then it has been in a long time. Serious crime in the U.S. has been in dramatic decline since the late '90s. But our jail habit hasn't changed with this dramatic drop in violence.
This country currently jails more people per 1,000 than virtually any society on the planet, including some brutal, downright nasty neo-authoritarian spots like China. According to a range of tightly consistent sources, the number of people incarcerated at the federal and state level, over the last 30 years, has exploded from under 300,000 to nearly 2 million today. On a per capita basis, Oklahoma is near the top of the charts for jailing both women and men.
In the mid-90s, I was a planning and technology officer for a boutique architectural firm here in Tulsa. The shop was completing conceptual work for what would become the DLMCJC. We were also preparing for a terminal competition to select the lead firm for final design and on the ground completion of the new jail.
I had mixed feelings about the project because the whole idea of jails and the continued incarceration of folks in large numbers -- something Oklahoma was renowned for, then and now -- was, I thought, a bummer policy. But my friends at the firm and some buddies in the civil liberties community convinced me that innocent people -- which is what people are when first arriving at jail -- deserve to be in a decent space while awaiting adjudication. Being in a hellhole (the old jail) and having been found guilty of nothing is a grave injustice.
So, I reconciled myself to the project.
My firm finished second in a multi-round competition. The DLMCJC project secured voter approval, in part because it was presented as a true long-run solution for Tulsa; efforts to carry out Tulsa's criminal justice/public safety agenda would put aggressive diversion programs in play to make it unnecessary to expand this new facility. We need to go back to these notions.
So why is there little correlation between our town's anemic population growth, city violence/property crime rates and the average daily population in the Moss facility? While the number of homicides and other violent and property offenses goes up and down (and it's been on a downward trend over the course of the last five or six years), our jail population seems to be on a constant, upward course, especially over the course of the last year. Why? Part of the answer, if some of the keenest sociology and criminal justice scholars are correct, comes from changes in Oklahoma criminal laws, state and federal sentencing rules, and the interplay between these things. But a host of public policy mavens believe that cities have choices -- we can stuff fewer offenders in "the hole" if we want too.
What fraction of the prisoners in the Moss facility are people who haven't paid court, traffic, and related fees or penalties? Is Moss becoming a Dickensian debtor's prison?
Our jailing obsession has a toxic effect on poor neighborhoods. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrated, the bulk of our drug war takes place in these areas, and violators who would often go free if arrested in suburban hideaways are routinely sent to jail.
Our jailing obsession has a big dollar drag, diverting funds that could be reinvested in community policing, neighborhood justice and engagement projects, and reanimating our dismal city parks -- efforts that have as much to do (if not more) with safer neighborhoods and lower crime rates as jailing and other classic responses.
Mayoral candidate Kathy Taylor has called for a searching examination of the uptick in jail costs and average bed count, and her opponent, Bill Christiansen has joined her. While incumbent Mayor Bartlett is focused on the narrower, arguably insufficient, cost-sharing squabble between the city and the county, Taylor seems up for looking at ways of diverting non-violent offenders; that is, skipping the jailing process, in turn alleviating strain on the system. And for what it's worth, Taylor's hardly soft on crime. She resurrected what some thought was a hard-line police chief during her tenure -- a fellow, who in an earlier posting as TPD chief, experienced big problems adapting to the increasingly pluralistic place that Tulsa and its police department had become. As it happens, Taylor's previous experience as a mayor who instituted an offender-diversion project, a tough gang mitigation effort, and a promising, if short lived, cop/neighborhood council, is a real part of what we now need to forestall wasting still more dollars, managerial attention and political capital on our jailing obsession.
But there are other voices that are already calling for expanding the DLMCJC -- demanding that we put and keep people in the hole at stupendous costs. This destructive impulse -- one unconnected to any reasonable concept of how we can improve safety and do justice -- needs to be strongly resisted.
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