Unveiling Oklahoma's Criminal Justice Challenges: Insights from the MODERN Task Force Report

Recent data from the MODERN Task Force Report and insights provided by the Council of State Governments shed light on critical challenges within Oklahoma's criminal justice system. From the lack of substance abuse services to the overcrowding of local jails- this data points to a need for a more nuanced approach to crime prevention and underscores the urgency for comprehensive reforms that extend beyond merely punishment.

Deterrence Is Limited By Most Crimes Being Unsolved

Research has repeatedly shown that when a person is deciding whether or not to commit a crime, they are more worried about whether they will be caught than how bad the punishment will be. In this way, certainty of punishment becomes more important than the severity of punishment when trying to prevent crime. Lawmakers in Oklahoma have historically pursued an approach that focuses almost exclusively on creating harsher punishment. An astounding 64% of all violent crimes in Oklahoma were not solved in 2022. Combine that troubling datapoint with the fact that nationally only 2 out of every 5 violent crimes even gets reported to police, and policymakers must confront an obvious question. How could long incarceration help reduce crime when the majority of Oklahomans committing violent crime can be certain they are relatively unlikely to ever be caught?

This problem is not limited to state prisons but affects local jails as well. According to the new MODERN Task Force Report, the average length of stay in our local jails has increased across the State in the last 5 years, once again revealing the hyper focus on punishment that our policy choices create. However, unlike prisons, the majority of Oklahomans housed in county jails have not been convicted of anything. Long stays in jail before trial can have a disastrous effect on the individual's life. One study found that pretrial detention significantly increases conviction rates, primarily through the increase of plea bargains, and lowers the likelihood of legitimate employment upon release. This makes sense, the longer someone is in jail pretrial, the more likely they are to take a plea deal in order to get out. It also makes preparing your defense much more difficult with no access to witnesses and only limited contact with attorneys. At the same time, a longer period of pretrial detention increases the likelihood that an individual will be arrested for a new offense.

Our Pretrial System Is Ineffective

Despite a drop in crime rates and a 40% drop in arrests, Oklahoma’s jail population has remained virtually unchanged. This is because the length of stay in jails has increased, at least in part, because bail is the only reliable method of release for most counties. Every county has access to other solutions, including a “release on recognizance” which simply means that the Court trusts the individual is not a threat to the community or a flight risk, and releases them without conditions except for a return to court at a later date. However, bail releases remain the most common form of release in every jail category - nearly doubling the amount of recognizance releases in rural counties while being nearly 10x more common in mid-sized jails.  As another option, many counties nationwide have pretrial supervision programs that allow those who would otherwise be sitting in a county jail awaiting trial, to be in their communities under supervision. According to the MODERN Task Force Report, only 10% of Oklahoma counties have a pretrial supervision program currently.

Meanwhile, the cost of a bail release has been steadily climbing. The average bail amount for a felony charge has nearly doubled since 2019, to an average amount of over $18,000. These are not all violent offenses either. In urban areas, the average bail amount for drug offenses rose by $5,000, an increase of nearly 66%. The vast majority of criminal defendants are indigent, meaning that they cannot afford an attorney, so coming up with large sums of cash in order to be released becomes nearly impossible for most individuals in jail. These individuals instead have to wait it out until trial or accept a plea bargain.

There is No Reentry System from Jails

The few Oklahomans that do get a release are facing reentry into the world with few resources. Oklahoma has the third highest prevalence of mental illness and the second highest rate of substance abuse disorder in the nation. This is reflected in our jail population with a list of the most common new charges prominently featuring substance abuse crimes including drug possession, DUIs, and public intoxication. Yet still, fewer than 10% of jails have an active  substance use, alcohol abuse, or mental health treatment program. Further, there is no statewide requirement for county jails to support an individual being released from jail and focus attention on the person’s future employment, housing, or education. Instead, we release individuals back into the same communities that still have little to no resources. Every county in Oklahoma is experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals while the demand for the services is increasing. Alcohol induced deaths and drug overdoses have increased dramatically over the last ten years while the number of psychologists and mental health social workers has declined.

This has led to an increasing rural crime problem that is masked by declining crime rates. Almost every serious violent crime category has declined in Oklahoma at a rate faster than the national average However, rural violence has grown considerably in the past decade and now is the second most common location for violent crime incidents behind large cities. These gaps in resources create large swathes of people, mostly concentrated in rural areas, that do not have the adequate tools to battle the ongoing public health crisis of mental illness and substance abuse disorder, and this contributes not only to the large numbers of people stuck behind bars in local jails but also the violence in rural communities. Studies have confirmed a link between alcohol and drug abuse to violence in the family setting, while others have found that substance abuse is implicated either as a cause, or as a predisposing factor, in violent behavior.

MODERN TaskForce Policy Recommendations

1. Increase Opportunities For Individuals to Receive Behavioral Health Treatment

2. Expanding Alternatives to Arrest & Jail Incarceration

3. Creating a More Fair and Efficient Pretrial Release System

4. Streamline Processes to Lower Length of Stay in Jails

5. Investing and Improving Victim Services

6. Improving Hiring and Retention of Local Jail Staff


The revelations from the MODERN Task Force Report and the Council of State Governments data underscore the imperative for a reevaluation of Oklahoma's criminal justice policies. The disproportionate reliance on bail, escalating bail amounts, and the scarcity of pretrial supervision programs demand thoughtful reforms. The data highlight not only the detrimental effects of extended pretrial detention on individuals but also the broader impact on communities, especially in rural areas grappling with a lack of mental health and substance abuse resources. To address these challenges effectively, there is a pressing need for a comprehensive overhaul that embraces alternatives to incarceration, prioritizes mental health and substance abuse treatment, and promotes community-focused solutions to break the cycle of crime.