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Criminal justice reform: Problems and problem-solvers at the OK Policy Institute’s 2019 Summer Policy Institute

For the past seven summers, undergraduate and graduate students from across Oklahoma who are interested in the study and practice of public policy have gathered for the Summer Policy Institute (SPI). Organized by the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy), the SPI consists of four days of seminars, panels, roundtables, and workshops led by Oklahoma’s leading policy experts. The topics covered include Oklahoma’s legislative process, state budget and taxes, criminal justice reform, education, poverty, health and opportunity.

Third-year University of Tulsa College of Law student Morgan Maxey was one of the people chosen to take part in this summer’s SPI (August 4-7), which was held at TU. “Morgan and the other student participants were selected from a competitive application process,” said the OPI’s Operations and Development Associate Kourtni Cain. “All of them are distinguished by strong academic credentials and rich extracurricular and work experience. They represent a wide range of academic institutions, fields of study and geographic and cultural backgrounds.”

To get an insider’s view of this stimulating gathering, we invited Maxey to share his thoughts on the experience and how he envisions the week of conversation, debate and networking contributing to his development as a legal professional.

By: Morgan Maxey

Oklahoma has its fair share of problems. These include some major policy challenges. For example, the state’s rate of incarceration is higher than in any country in the world. At the same time, poverty here remains significantly above the national average at around 600,000 Oklahomans and counting. And the kids are not OK with Oklahoma ranking 45th in education and 42nd in overall child well-being.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that Oklahoma also has its fair share of problem-solvers. Indeed, I now have a deeper understanding of this robust human resource as a result of participating in the recent SPI held at TU.

Criminal acts and negative circumstances

While in law school I have interned with the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office for nearly a year and a half. As an intern, one of the most crucial skill sets I have developed is the ability to communicate effectively with clients. When speaking with a client, it is essential to understand the adverse circumstances that have shaped the individual’s life prior to arrest. Almost invariably, the client has been affected by issues relating to poverty, healthcare and either one or both of substance abuse problems and untreated or undiagnosed mental illnesses.

The SPI panels and workshops addressed these negative circumstances individually as significant harmful social policy issues affecting Oklahoma’s citizens. Most importantly, each of these topics was also treated as being interrelated. It was both educational and reaffirming to discuss these social policy relationships with my fellow SPI peers, as each attendee brought their own expertise and experiences to these conversations.

Because of these SPI-generated discussions I now have further insight into the non-criminal issues I address with clients during nearly every interview. Additionally, I now have a statewide network of SPI alumni with whom I can consult on these topics as it relates to better understanding my clients’ life experiences.

Criminal Justice panel – reform, debate and civility

The SPI panel discussions were particularly valuable for my development as a legal professional. Panelists included elected city and state officials, judges and attorneys, policy experts and professors, as well as policy reform advocates and community organizers.

Although there were numerous panels throughout the week of SPI, I was most educationally affected and professionally influenced by the Criminal Justice panel. Participants included Aisha  McWeay, the executive director of Still She Rises; Tulsa County First Assistant District Attorney Erik Grayless; Special Judge April Seibert of the Tulsa County District Court; Kris Steele, the chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and the executive director of TEEM; and criminal justice reform advocate D’Marria Monday.

Aside from Grayless, each of the panelists generally agreed on the issues they were presented, although each provided their own unique professional and experienced perspectives. All of them offered valuable feedback and debate regarding criminal justice reform, which I have already begun to implement into my work as a Licensed Legal Intern.

Personally, the most encouraging takeaway was observing the courtesy and respect afforded to Grayless amidst some heated disagreements, as well as Grayless’s own poise and respect, which he offered in return. The field of criminal law is often highly adversarial, so it was refreshing to observe this polite and courteous behavior. While listening to the panelists, I could not help but hope that I might one day be in their positions, influencing reform in Oklahoma for the greater good.

Consider taking part

OK Policy accepts applications for the SPI from people who have all sorts of educational backgrounds. If your professional interests might be policy-based, involving criminal justice reform, opportunity, poverty, education, Oklahoma’s legislative process, the state budget, taxes or numerous other topics addressed by OK Policy, then I would encourage you to look into attending the SPI in 2020. I promise you won’t regret a single second of it, and you will undoubtedly grow as a professional and Oklahoma citizen.

University of Tulsa College of Law student Morgan MaxeyMorgan Maxey is a third-year student at TU Law. As a licensed legal intern with the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office, Maxey advocates for indigent clients in the courtroom, with representation experience ranging from bond reduction arguments to felony preliminary hearings. Before law school, Maxey studied acting at the London Theatre Academy, trained as an improviser with The Second City in Chicago and earned a bachelor of arts degree in theatre performance from Oklahoma State University. After graduation, Maxey looks forward to contributing to criminal justice reform in Oklahoma as a criminal defense and indigent civil rights litigator.


Do you share Morgan Maxey’s passion for criminal justice reform? Opportunities to learn about and get involved in social justice issues abound at TU Law. In fact, U.S. News & World Report ranked the college’s clinical education program 74th in the United States.