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Good news from OK County drug court

Oklahoma County District Judge Kenneth Stoner. [Oklahoman Archives Photo]
Oklahoma County District Judge Kenneth Stoner. [Oklahoman Archives Photo]

Drug courts have been around for many years in Oklahoma, and statistics show they’re effective. The judge who oversees Oklahoma County’s drug court wants to make his even more so.

The Oklahoman’s Kayla Branch recently profiled changes implemented by District Judge Kenneth Stoner, who took over the drug court two years ago. They’re making a difference.

Stoner, 51, was appointed to the bench after a dozen years in private practice, where he had focused much of his attention on clients who suffered from addiction and mental health issues. He also is a former prosecutor in Oklahoma County.

He said from the outset that more could be done with the state’s diversion courts. “We are experiencing a watershed moment where we are beginning to embrace a paradigm shift, moving to a more effective understanding of addiction and recovery,” Stoner said the day he was appointed.

One effective tool has been to increase incentives for drug court participants to follow the program. The incentives can range from certificates given to those who complete phases of the program, to gift cards, and even tickets a Thunder game. Stoner awards Payday candy bars to those who find work.

“The science says that incentives are powerful in changing behavior, as much as or more than a sanction,” Stoner told Branch. “We hadn’t done a good job of having an adequate number of incentives, so we are trying to think of everything we could work in to reward someone for good behavior.”

To that end, a nonprofit account has been established by the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma to help pay for additional incentives and to assist drug court participants, who must pay not only the court’s fees, but also restitution and other costs.

Stoner also has come up with new sanctions — apart from a trip to jail — for those who miss a therapy session. These include curfews, weekends working with a jail-labor program, or even writing a paper. Says Stoner: “For every step that you can put in before jail, the better. Jail stays are supposed to be the heavy sanction.”

Stoner’s court has also formed a partnership with the city-county health department to hire two peer educators. These are people who have been through similar programs, and thus can offer invaluable insight and assistance to participants.

The ultimate goal is to keep participants, who are thoroughly vetted for acceptance in the program, out of jail. In 2019, 126 people graduated from the Oklahoma County program, which now has about 450 participants and an 85% graduation rate.

Figures provided to the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council show that jail days from July 2018 to July 2019 decreased by 65% compared with the prior 12-month period. That saves the county money, and keeps participants with their families and in the workforce.

These are encouraging results that taxpayers should hope will only continue to grow. Kudos to Stoner and all those who are playing a role.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›