Deferred decisions: Feds give county two more years to fix jail

By: Dale Denwalt The Journal Record January 19, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY – Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice have agreed to hold an action for two years while Oklahoma County remedies its jail situation.

District Attorney David Prater said he met with the DOJ a week ago in Washington, D.C., and asked for the reprieve, which would prevent any federally initiated civil rights court action against the county. The DOJ could have entered a consent decree or filed a lawsuit – both of which would have been considered litigation against Oklahoma County.

“They’ve now said they’re not going to do either,” Prater said.

Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, told the Oklahoma City Rotary Club 29 about the DOJ’s decision. Part of the reason the feds are willing to back off is a task force’s involvement and the hiring of a firm to study the county’s criminal justice system.

“The threat of a takeover is now on the sideline,” Williams said. “They all believe we will actually implement a better and broader solution for this process than the feds coming in and taking over the system.”

The chamber-backed task force includes 17 of the state’s most powerful business, government and civic leaders as members.

Williams presented on Tuesday the findings of an initial study ordered by the task force. The Vera Institute of Justice noticed several key drivers of the county’s jail overpopulation. Three-quarters of arrests are for misdemeanor or lower crimes, and the nonprofit social science consulting organization said there’s a lack of community interventions such as mental health and substance abuse alternatives to incarceration.

Williams also noted that Vera found inmates who spend up to 10 days in jail without charges filed and without an attorney.

“We have a situation where we have a fairly significant inefficiency in the charging and arraignment process,” Williams said.

Other problems found in the short study showed that inmates might spend longer times in jail because public defenders have a financial incentive to file continuance motions, and poor inmates could fall into a cycle of debt and jail time just because they can’t pay the county’s fines.

“Inappropriate sentencing can, in turn, create even worse social outcomes for the individual, for the individual’s family and for the community as a whole,” said Williams.

The task force has agreed to engage Vera for a second, more in-depth study of the county’s criminal justice system and jail, which could take seven to nine months to complete. Williams said there won’t be any proposals to renovate or replace the jail until after the phase-two recommendations are presented.

“By completion of this process, we will begin to understand then what our long-term facility needs are – both the type of facilities we need and the size of the facilities we will need,” he said.

Sheriff John Whetsel, who is in charge of the jail and frequently criticizes conditions there, said he is willing to wait until the public can be presented with the best idea.

“Obviously we have an immediate need and concern, but I’m also very committed to the objectives and the mission of the task force,” Whetsel said. “It’s extremely important that whatever it is we do, we do right.”

Before getting the reprieve, there was worry that the Justice Department might require new facilities at taxpayers’ expense, regardless of the county’s best intentions. Officials said previously that given Oklahoma County’s budget, the debt would probably be paid via a property tax hike over three years if voters did not approve some other form of funding.

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