One out of every 31 American adults are in prison or jail, or on probation or parole according to a March 2009 study by The Pew Center. Twenty-five years ago, that number was one in 77.
In February, Rogers County adopted a new approach for dealing with some types of offenders who might otherwise be populating the overcrowded prison system. The Alternative Court Program attempts to address core issues, supervise offenders, and provide rehabilitative counseling and treatment services. The Program has been consolidated under Judge Sheila Condren.
“We are addressing each offender as an individual by coordinating services to maximize the chances that a person will not re-offend,” said Condren. “we want them to be productive, taxpaying citizens.”
All of the offenders in the Rogers County Alternative Court Program have either substance abuse or mental health issues that contributed to the crime.
In Oklahoma, the majority of incarcerated offenders are serving sentences for nonviolent crime and most are white males with an average age of 37. Nearly one-third of those incarcerated are for alcohol or drug related charges, according to a FY 2009 report by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Almost half of Oklahoma offenders on probation are in trouble for alcohol or drug related crimes, and 56-percent of those on parole are for alcohol or drug related crimes.
Rogers County’s innovative approach to criminal rehabilitation focuses on evaluating and funneling offenders into appropriate programs in order to promote chances of rehabilitation, teach life skills, and mete out appropriate forms of punishment and recompense.
There are three prongs in the available approaches to dealing with offenders in the Alternative Courts System: DUI/Drug Court, Anna McBride Court, and the Community Sentencing Program.
“There is also a punishment aspect,” said First Assistant District Attorney Ray Hasselman.
In all three areas of the Alternative Court Program, offenders may serve some amount of time in jail or at Avalon Correctional Center or will do community service work in addition to probation, counseling and treatment services..
The cost of crime on society is difficult to measure if all factors are taken into consideration. A decade ago, researcher David Anderson estimated the cost of crime in the U.S. to be $1.7 trillion annually when taking all factors into account. But dollars cannot fully not measure human suffering or collateral damage such as the long term emotional impact on victims or children of offenders.
The Community Sentencing program administered under the Department of Corrections.
“Community Sentencing existed, but had fallen off the map,” said Hasselman.
The Community Sentencing Program is more intensive than probation but a step down from the high level of scrutiny of Drug Court.
All of the programs in Alternative Court try to prepare offenders to reenter mainstream society and become productive members of society. Community Sentencing, which operates under Department of Corrections supervision while the other programs are under Mental Health, is the least intensive in monitoring offenders. Condren said in most cases that means first time offenders who are assessed as a low-risk to re-offend will be more likely to be placed in that program.
“If the structure goes away, what happens?” said Hasselman.
Teaching offenders how to operate in life is key to the high level of success reported by these programs here and in other places where similar programs have been implemented.
While services and training are not free, in most cases offenders pay some or part of the cost for counseling and drug screening tests. They live in the community and pay their own rent instead of being incarcerated. Keeping qualifying applicants out of prison, living and working in the society to which they will ultimately return is a cost savings to taxpayers.
County jails house offenders until sentenced by the court to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Once an inmate is sentenced to DOC, the Department pays the county $27 per inmate plus medical costs.
For the past decade, the county jail population in Oklahoma has steadily risen with a slight spike in 2006.
Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton has worked with the District Attorney’s office to transfer DOC bound prisoners out more quickly and free up beds in the county jail.
Currently, the court system is crowded with judges fielding large dockets. Even while funding is being secured for a new Rogers County Courthouse, judges, the District Attorney’s Office and other officials in the court system are working to find solutions for dealing with offenders more effectively.
The Alternative Court Program is one attempt at a solution.
Keeping offenders in the community, working, paying taxes and paying for at least a portion of the costs associated with their supervision, helps offset the cost to taxpayers.
It also allows for a more individualized approach to rehabilitation. For example, many offenders do not have a high school diploma or GED, said Hasselman. The Alternative Program works with Tulsa Community College and Rogers State University’s Trio Program to educate offenders and even allow them to learn a vocational trade.
Many offenders do not have a high school diploma or equivalency.
“I’ve learned not to say, ‘what year did you graduate’ because many haven’t,” said Condren.
She said the most unique aspect of the Rogers County program is that judges and prosecutors work with mental health professionals, substance abuse counselors and defense attorneys to find the best possible course of treatment and rehabilitation for each individual in the Alternative Court Program.
“What our office is trying to do, is to find the best consideration for which process is appropriate,” said Hasselman.