In Tulsa, Offering Opportunities for Recovery Instead of Jail Time

IN TULSA, Oklahoma, residents who are detained for public intoxication are given an option other than going to jail: they can choose to go to Tulsa Sobering Center, a facility that specializes in addiction treatment and recovery.

After they sober up during a minimum 10-hour (or maximum 12-hour) stay, individuals have another decision to make: They can receive treatment for their addiction, or a staff member will call them a cab home. Either way, they won't have anything added to their criminal record.

In Tulsa, a Sobering Success

For a city where public intoxication accounts for 60 percent of municipal arrests, the 6-month-old program could have a major impact on incarceration rates and costs by offering those with a substance use disorder--who are often repeat offenders--a chance to recover. The program could also help unseat Oklahoma from its position as the state with the highest incarceration rate. Though it's too early to tell exactly how effective the program has been, preliminary data show that many people are choosing the Sobering Center instead of jail.

"What we've found is, even when they're intoxicated, the vast majority of folks take door number two when you give them that option," says Tulsa's Republican Mayor G.T. Bynum, who implemented the initiative last May, only a few months into office.

So far, 391 people have been checked into the facility, according to Deputy Chief of Police Jonathan Brooks. Just 21 of them have been taken there more than once.

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Bynum says people arrested for public intoxication in Tulsa generally fall into two categories: Those who made a once-in-a-lifetime mistake, and those with a serious substance abuse problem who have likely been behind bars before.

By offering an alternative to jail time, the city can keep first-time, nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system. More importantly, the initiative addresses the root of the high incarceration rate: repeat offenders who need treatment to keep them out of trouble in the future.

Brooks says that 47 people have opted to enter the facility's certified substance abuse and recovery program, while another 20 have graduated to a more intensive, long-term treatment program.

"We're pleased at where we're at today [with the Sober Center], and we're still seeing small continual growth," says Brooks, adding that he is looking forward to expanding the program in the future.

When someone is arrested for public intoxication, not only does it cost the city money ($69 per day) but it also takes up officers' valuable time. Bynum says it takes an officer about 90 minutes to book someone into jail, while Brooks says it takes an average of 8 minutes to get someone into the Sobering Center.

"(The facility) will save police officer time by addressing the needs of individuals quickly so our officers can immediately return to the field with more pressing issues citywide," Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said in a press release last March announcing the program.


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The facility, which is operated by the nonprofit organization 12 & 12, Inc., was paid for by a donation from a private foundation, but the city spends about $250,000 a year to operate it.

Brooks says that, although other cities have facilities where officers can bring people to sober up, he believes Tulsa's facility is the first to have beds where they can take medication to detox from both drugs and alcohol while supervised by trained staff.

Bynum describes how the concept of the Sobering Center is similar to that of an initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the city is working to lower the number of panhandlers. The city sends people out in a van every morning to offer panhandlers an "honest day's work for an honest day's pay," Bynum explains.


Those who take the city up on the offer spend the day cleaning up parks and beautifying public spaces. They also get a free lunch, during which they are connected with social service agencies to get them the help they need.

What Albuquerque has found: unless a panhandler is intoxicated or is physically handicapped, they will take the opportunity to work.

Bynum explains how both the Sobering Center and Albuquerque's panhandling initiative address the roots of the issues and offer resources to those who need them.

"A nonviolent offender doesn't need to be in [the criminal justice] system]," says Bynum. "We need to be treating the underlying problem." By Casey Leins Staff Writer

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