City staffers will examine during the coming weeks the municipal juvenile justice system with an eye toward finding a way to achieve a more equitable balance between an offender's conduct and how the offender is held accountable.
Ward IV Councilor Marlon Coleman proposed the study as an extension of a "moral revival" the city joined in 2018 when it pledged support for the Poor People's Campaign. The national campaign is dedicated to addressing the core issues of "perpetual poverty."
The city organized in 2018 an amnesty program that provided opportunities for those who owed outstanding fines and fees in Muskogee Municipal and County courts to work out affordable payments without the threat of being jailed. Coleman said a second component will be a clinic scheduled later this year that will walk offenders through the expungement process.
"What happens many times is even though expungement is available, people don’t take advantage because it is a cumbersome process," Coleman said about a two-step program that will include a one-day class and a one-day clinic. "It is a detail-oriented process …, and so we have set that up through this program."
Examining prospective changes in the municipal juvenile justice system will be the next issue the city plans to address as it addresses perpetual poverty during its participation with the Poor People's Campaign. Coleman told his peers on the Muskogee City Council there was a need to examine how the juvenile justice system impacts families.
"We want to make certain we are proactive and keep as many juveniles out of the criminal justice system that we can," Coleman said. "Nobody wins in Muskogee if we have a system set up where juvenile offenders become adult offenders because there is no mechanism to help families make certain they stay out of the system."
Coleman said he and others who support reforms are aware that offenders must be held accountable for bad conduct. But he believes there must be a "balance between what those consequences should actually be in terms of their fines and fees."
"We want to be in a situation where we say Muskogee is a place to live, work and play that people should have a second chance to improve their lives —especially when they are juveniles," Coleman said. "For juvenile justice this balance is more difficult because it is the parents of the offenders who are responsible for payment of monetary penalties imposed by the court."
Ward II Councilor Dan Hall, who is campus police chief for Muskogee Public Schools, expressed concerns that a relaxed juvenile justice system at the municipal level might be manipulated by students who are repeat offenders and some parents. He said there are some who "could care less if you give them amnesty" regardless of how much time is spent trying to work through the issues with them.
"I understand sometimes it's not the parents' fault, and we need to take care of that," Hall said. "But at other times we need to make sure we are not giving everybody 50 million chances to continue to break rules and the law."
Hall said he agreed there is a need for a system where the needs of all parties are balanced and one in which the fines do not impoverish the parents of wayward students But any system, he said, must "leave us with some teeth" and be one that "cannot be manipulated."
Ward I Councilor Patrick Cale, citing feedback from participants in the amnesty program, said he is impressed with the positive impact that has had. He expressed support for Coleman's subsequent proposals, saying he could not "be more proud for our community and for our community leaders."
"I have had real interaction with real people that had a complete loss of hope ...," Cale said. "This program has afforded people to get where they can see …, they have paid their debt to society and started anew .... these are all great programs and great ideas."
City staffers are expected to report their findings to councilors and recommend changes by December.