Biding Time (Part VI): We can't sustain this

PART SIX The Oklahoma County criminal justice is on an unsustainable path. Where will it lead?

story by josh dulaney
design by richard hall
photos by the oklahoman photographers
published june 30, 2017

Inside the downtown Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce on a warm May morning, the point man for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma County sits across a table in a Spartan meeting room. 

Alex Roth will be here for months. A former public defender in New Hampshire, Roth, dressed neatly in business attire, occasionally covers his mouth in thought, checks notes on a legal pad and considers the work ahead.

“It’s difficult when you have practices, things that everyone’s been doing for years or decades, and even more so for people who are now holding office, who are elected,” he says. “It’s very hard for them to say, ‘Yeah, change that.’”

Roth is with the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based group hired by the chamber to examine the criminal justice system, and the dangerously overcrowded Oklahoma County jail. 

After forming the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Task Force in 2015 — in response to a federal investigation into the jail — the chamber has spent $375,000 for Vera to conduct an initial survey of the criminal justice system, a full study culminating in a December report, and for Roth to help ensure local leaders are implementing recommendations.

Broadly, those recommendations include improved oversight and accountability in the criminal justice system, cutting the number of nonviolent offenders booked into the county jail, streamlining cases, expanding diversion programming for those with mental illness and drug abuse problems, and blunting the impact of court costs and fines, which helps drive repeated returns behind bars.   

Indeed, many local leaders suggest that simply building a bigger jail is no panacea for the deeply rooted problems facing the Oklahoma County criminal justice system, crippled as it is by understaffing and an overflow of low-level offenders who cannot afford the bail it takes to get out of jail.

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