In Oklahoma City, a welcome conversation about criminal justice

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: December 6, 2015

IT was significant indeed that the topic of discussion at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Forum for December wasn't the economy or the progress of MAPS 3 or another issue with a clear business tie. Instead it was criminal justice, particularly the need to move away from a system that keeps too many people locked in the county jail, and for too long.

A 17-member task force, composed of business leaders, law enforcement, county officials and others, has been studying a way forward. Members are in agreement that a holistic approach to criminal justice in the county is paramount, instead of a traditional approach.

“What we know is what we have today is unsustainable,” Clay Bennett, president of Dorchester Capital and chairman of the Oklahoma City Thunder, told the chamber gathering last week.

A committee that spent seven months studying the jail has recommended asking voters for a sales tax to build a new jail and remodel the juvenile justice center — but stressed that any plan had to include reforms aimed at reducing the need for jail cells.

The jail has been beset by problems since opening in 1991, but has been of particular concern since 2008 when the U.S. Justice Department outlined scores of civil rights violations. Most of those have been addressed, but taking care of the remaining handful will require a major renovation or a new jail.

Current practices keep the jail churning at capacity while not doing enough to keep people out of the jail in the first place, or keep their stays to a minimum.

Sheriff John Whetsel noted at the forum that 82 percent of those in his jail are “pretrial,” but that many stays are extended because posting bail makes one ineligible for a public defender. Consequently, District Attorney David Prater said in urging that this bond rule be changed, those of means can get out quickly but many of the poor cannot.

Prater also called for the bond schedule to be revised. The current schedule is “very arbitrary,” he said, with high bonds for some crimes that don't warrant it. He'd also like to see a system that, as bonds are considered, measures an offender's risk to re-offend.

The county has several successful diversion programs in place, such as drug court and the ReMerge program for female offenders with children. However, most of those stay full. Finding a way to expand capacity in these programs will be an important piece of any reform effort.

Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry, said there's a need to consider reclassifying some offenses, particularly those that involve substance abuse or mental illness. The state's mental health commissioner, Terri White, noted that one-fourth of Oklahomans who need help for mental illness or substance abuse don't get it. Many wind up in the criminal justice system as a result.

Whetsel spoke of the need to “treat people as people” during the booking process, by having judges at the jail and assessment tools in place. Prater struck a similar chord in passionately saying that most prosecutors “hate to put people in prison” because it signals failures at the front end.

“Let's talk about being more compassionate and less hard-a-- on this situation,” he said.

That drew hearty applause from the business leaders in the audience. Convincing the public of the need for this investment remains a tall order. However the fact the chamber and its members are discussing criminal justice and mental health, and understand the toll the current system takes on families and the community, is highly encouraging.

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