Project spurs TU Schweitzer Fellow to focus on rehab and recovery access
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Project spurs TU Schweitzer Fellow to focus on rehab and recovery access

Man in a court room leaning on a podium and posing for a head shot
2022-23 Schweitzer Fellow Austin Stewart

Tulsa’s music, art, sport and culinary scene combined with its commitment to community service makes the city one of the best places to build dreams. However, many issues, from health to law to education, impact Tulsa residents. The Tulsa Albert Schweitzer Fellowship — a 12-month health leadership program — addresses some of these issues by focusing on Oklahoma’s health disparities.

Each year, 10-15 applicants are selected through a competitive process from a wide range of graduate and professional degree programs at Tulsa-area universities including The University of Tulsa, University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences and Langston University. The fellowship is housed at The University of Tulsa Oxley College of Health Sciences and is one of 13 sites across the country.

Austin Stewart, a law student wrapping up his final semester, is one of two fellows from TU serving the community for the Tulsa Albert Schweitzer Fellowship’s 2022-23 term. An advocate for recovery resources, Stewart’s project is designed to connect individuals charged with low-level drug offenses with the recovery resources available in the Tulsa area.

Defending the public

The Schweitzer Fellowship has given Stewart the opportunity to serve and develop his leadership abilities in unimaginable ways, he says. “The fellowship has helped me combine the skills I was learning in law school with my passions for criminal justice reform and public health,” he said.

Prior to the fellowship, Stewart interned at the public defender’s offices in Topeka, Kansas, and in Tulsa during his first two years of law school. “Something felt different after I completed these internships,” he said. “Having loved ones who have suffered deeply from addiction and seeing their struggles was my catalyst. I wanted to work alongside people who were on the front lines of this work.”

The Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office provides legal counsel to any person in the county who is charged with a crime, regardless of that person’s ability to pay. Public defenders are court-appointed defense attorneys for impoverished clients; the Public Defender’s Office defends 80% of all people charged with a crime in Tulsa and the surrounding area. This means that team is a firsthand witness to the devastation caused by the war on drugs.

Recover and rebuild

In the world of public defense, Stewart says there is a growing movement to approach a client’s case holistically. This kind of defense work advocates for a client’s legal case as well as their other needs such as health care, housing and employment. “Working with the public defender’s office gives me an outlet to help people suffering from addiction legally as well as through the lens of public health,” Stewart stated.

Through his involvement with the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office, Stewart attends proceedings at the courthouse, jail and various prisons. These meetings allow him to find and interview men and women either charged with or serving time for drug crimes, which allows Stewart to develop a personalized recovery plan that’s often contained in the participant’s broader re-entry program. For participants serving prison time, these plans are included as part of a presentation before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

Stewart’s goal is to ensure that participants of his project are set up for success upon their release from custody or supervision and to acknowledge and fulfill their needs for rehabilitation and recovery.

Fewer incriminations, more options

Man in a plaid button up and jeans standing outside a building with pillars
Austin Stewart

When it comes to implementing policies that effectively address addiction-riddled populations without relying on criminal penalties to assuage the problem, Stewart has a few methods to offer: “Allocating time and community funds away from the prosecution of drug crimes and toward treatment programs is a more cost-effective way of addressing the issue of addiction.”

Stewart also maintained that treatment is more effective than law enforcement and that tasking police officers with arresting addicts does little to improve the public safety interests of the community.

“We already ask our police officers to do everything from dog catching to solving murder,” he said, “Additionally, invasive policing practices are expensive and have led to increased rates of children growing up with a parent in prison while doing little to decrease rates of substance abuse.”

Most of all, the kind of work that Stewart is involved with requires understanding and kindness.

“People who are suffering from addiction have a disease,” he said, “and this disease strips so much away from their lives until there is little left of the person they once were before their addiction. These people need a bed in a hospital, not in a prison cell.”

Stewart is set to take the bar exam in July, after which he hopes to work as a public defender.

“My Albert Schweitzer project has given me vital experience with representing clients charged with drug crimes both in a legal and rehabilitative manner,” Stewart said, “as well as the opportunity to learn how to advocate holistically for my future clients’ needs.”

If changing and improving lives is on your career to-do list, then The University of Tulsa College of Law is where you belong! Visit their website today to learn more about the program’s indisputable reputation.