Aiming to slow the cycle of nonviolent offenders re-entering the criminal justice system, Tulsa County’s chief public defender says his office is taking a new approach to address clients’ social needs and help them navigate the terms of their probation.
Public Defender Rob Nigh says many defendants violate the terms of their probation by failing to pay the fines and costs associated with their charges, meet with supervision officers or fulfill other requirements such as passing drug tests or participating in treatment programs.
“For any individual, no matter what their educational background, to attempt to fulfill all those obligations can be very challenging,” Nigh said.
So Nigh has created a team of assistant public defenders who have volunteered to help clients successfully complete their probation.
Nigh said these attorneys are obligated to be familiar with the places where clients have to report while on probation, as well as with resources to address any social issues that might put defendants at risk of reoffending.
“What we had done, unfortunately, in the past is simply tried to deal with the criminal charge without understanding what caused the person to become involved in the criminal justice system in the first place,” Nigh said.
Assistant Public Defender Alex Bramblett, who works a criminal felony docket, also said the role of the public defender has shifted from a time when a client would plead to a probationary sentence and the attorney would be done with the case.
Bramblett said the office is recognizing that now clients need advocates to help them navigate the requirements of their probation.
“They need a network of people around them to make it,” Bramblett said.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler called Nigh’s plan “a refreshing perspective on what we all see as an evolution in the criminal court process.”
Since Tulsa County started its Drug Court in 1996, it has added several treatment-based courts and programs as alternatives to traditional prosecution, including DUI Court, Mental Health Court, Veterans Court and Women in Recovery.
Public defenders, who are appointed by judges to defend people who can’t afford to hire attorneys, represent about 80 percent of the cases in Tulsa County District Court.
“The reality is that the vast majority of our cases do not go to trial,” Nigh said. “Most of our cases are resolved through a plea agreement with the state, primarily the nonviolent cases. And so the vast majority of those receive probationary sentences.”
When a person violates the terms of his or her probation, the District Attorney’s Office may file an application to accelerate the defendant’s deferred sentence or revoke his or her suspended sentence. These defendants typically end up in jail on warrants, and it’s up to a judge to decide what course of action to take.
In fiscal year 2014, public defenders handled 941 of these cases, Nigh said. That made up almost 9 percent of the office’s total of 10,878 cases, which also included felony, misdemeanor, mental health, juvenile, civil and appeal cases.
District Judge Doug Drummond in June began calling a new court docket for people who have committed nonviolent felony crimes and are accused of violating the rules of their probation by testing positive for drugs, not reporting to their probation officers or not paying supervision fees.
Drummond said there have been approximately 400 of these cases on the docket from June to December.
Based on his experience after seven months, Drummond said he sees at least two kinds of people called back to the court on warrants for breaking the terms of their probation — those who show a desire to change and those who don’t. Among those who do show a desire to change, there are often other issues that need to be addressed.
“Many of them have dropped out of school. Many had dysfunctional childhoods. They have low self-esteem. They have made bad choices,” Drummond said. “Add all that to a substance abuse or mental health problem and you start to realize the complex issues you are dealing with. No one is making excuses for their criminal behavior, but, at the end of the day, they need help and guidance.”
Nigh said part of his motivation to create this team of attorneys came from seeing the work of the Tulsa County Women’s Defense Team, which uses a holistic defense model that addresses clients’ social needs in addition to their legal needs. He wanted to expand those services to male clients as well.
“Before now, as far as I’m concerned ... We haven’t had that kind of wrap-around service for all of our clients,” said Nigh, who began working full time as the chief public defender in August.
Assistant Public Defender Kat Greubel has worked as the defense attorney on the Women’s Defense Team since August 2014 and said she’s now helping bring this holistic approach to the rest of the office.
“I think our role as resource coordinators is to help make this office a place for our community to come to if they need help beyond just legal representation,” Greubel said. “So if our clients need housing, if they need education, they don’t have enough food to eat, they don’t have enough clothes, if they’re being victimized in some way and have domestic violence issues, we want them to know they can come to us for help.”
Arianna Pickard 918-581-8413