Cooperation with Vera Institute Could Lead to Significant Jail Reform

The Oklahoma Legal Group Blog

Adam Banner - Monday, February 15, 2016

Almost since its first day in operation in 1991, the Oklahoma County Jail has been plagued with problems. In recent years, the jail's issues became so severe that the United States Department of Justice has threatened civil litigation and a federal takeover if the county did not clean up its act when it came to the jail. After an investigation revealed more than 60 civil liberties violations at the jail, the Justice Department gave the county a limited time to either fix the problems or face the consequences.

Now, after the Oklahoma County District Attorney addressed the Justice Department and showed signs of working toward a reasonable solution, the jail has been offered a two-year grace period for fixing the final problems.

One of the biggest reasons for the grace period is the efforts of community leaders to work with the Vera Institute to find alternatives to building a bigger jail.

Although the Jail has resolved most of the problems addressed by the Justice Department, the facility is still woefully overcrowded. Built to accommodate 1,200 inmates, the facility routinely houses more than twice that number--an average of 2,500 inmates per day.

Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel approached business leaders with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber to gauge support for construction of a new jail, but these community leaders scoffed at the idea of a larger jail as a solution.

The problem, they say, is not that the current facility is too small, but that we are incarcerating far too many people who do not need to be behind bars. In fact, they say, the jail is becoming a de facto debtor's prison. Those who are too poor to afford bail remain behind bars as they await trial, even if they pose no significant flight risk, and even if they are jailed for nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. This not only causes problems for the jail itself, but it also creates issues for the Oklahoma County Public Defenders Office. The Public Defenders Office is already understaffed, and it is forced to handle all of the cases involving individuals who are too poor to post bond and usually jailed for petty offenses.

The community leaders turned to the Vera Institute, a New York organization whose stated purpose is "to help build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities."

One of the first acts of the Vera Institute--even before the Institute was formally developed--was to resolve bond policies in the New York justice system. In 1961, the organization "demonstrated that New Yorkers too poor to afford bail but with strong ties to their communities could be released and still show up for trial." In other words, there was no reason to keep these people--who had not yet been convicted of any crime--behind bars.

So are inappropriate and arbitrary bond policies an issue at the Oklahoma County Jail? Most definitely. This is especially evident when dealing with relatively minor misdemeanor offenses.

Remember--the jail houses roughly 1,300 more people than it has the capacity to hold. Of those held in the Oklahoma County Jail, 80 percent (2,000 inmates) are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime. Of those inmates awaiting trial, 70 percent (1,400 inmates) are held on misdemeanor complaints.

Look at the numbers again. There are 1,300 more people in the Oklahoma County Jail than it is equipped to hold; there are 1,400 people in the Oklahoma County Jail who are charged with misdemeanors who have not yet gone to trial. Clearly, the inability to post bond has a significant impact on prison overcrowding. If Oklahoma County is going to address bond issues, then it needs to start with the nonviolent misdemeanor offenses that many of its population are dealing with. Simply reassessing the current bond situation as it applies to misdemeanor charges could solve a lot of Oklahoma County's problems. This could cause much needed relief for the prison population without further burdening the Oklahoma County Public Defenders Office and its limited budget.

One recommendation for criminal justice reform at the Oklahoma County Jail include revision of arbitrary bond policies and relaxing bond requirements for those who (1) cannot afford bond and (2) do not pose a substantial flight risk. Another suggestion is easing the fines and fees associated with probation, as these, too, create an unnecessary financial burden that makes it difficult for offenders to successfully complete probation or to become productive citizens. Instead, many offenders are saddled with insurmountable debt, creating a cycle that continues to punish the poor for being poor.

The justice reform task force is expected to sign a contract with the Vera Institute, who will then do in-depth research and data analysis over the next seven to nine months to make more thorough recommendations and explain the impact each element of reform is likely to have on the county justice system.

They say that when you hit rock bottom, there is nowhere to go but up--the Oklahoma County Jail has certainly hit rock bottom, and the community leaders on the task force are certainly striving to implement the reforms necessary for resolving the remaining issues.

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