Jail task force sees long-term savings but short-term costs

By Brian Brus

OKLAHOMA CITY – Members of a task force on how to fix the Oklahoma County jail and justice system agree that systemwide reform will lead to savings in the long run, but the upfront costs are going to be a challenge.

“We’re going to need some staffing and office space, for example,” said Ray Vaughn, a county commissioner and a member of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s criminal justice task force. “There’s already been discussions at a very high level – meaning the 30,000-foot level – about whether anybody will provide us with some space or a few bucks out of their budgets.”

Central Oklahoma’s criminal detention system needs to keep people charged with minor offenses out of jail entirely and develop new approaches to handling those with mental illness and substance abuse problems, the task force reported Wednesday.

Those are two of the six major areas of reform identified after a year of research with the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

Conditions at the jail and the legal system that floods it with detainees are beyond crisis stage, said Clayton Bennett, head of the task force and chairman of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team.

“It’s not even an emergency,” he said. “It’s desperation.”

The chamber organized the task force in response to years of problems at the Oklahoma County jail that included a threat of a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. Falling just short of fixing everything on the Justice Department’s list, county officials faced the likelihood of being forced to build a new facility, with or without taxpayers’ acquiescence.

County commissioners and Sheriff John Whetsel have been discussing what a new jail would need and how to pay for it even as they struggled with budget shortfalls and claims of unpaid debts. Since the project would require a public vote and tax revenue, chamber officials offered to take a closer look at the underlying issues of operations, site population, and justice reform.

But the recommendations of Vera researchers have raised funding questions of their own. The jail suffers from a paradox of revenue production.

“The district court and other agencies are under pressure to collect fees and costs to support a justice system that is not fully funded at the state level,” the report says. “If these costs are driving jail admissions and ongoing involvement in the justice system, however, these fundraising efforts may be counterproductive, and undermine the economic vitality of communities in Oklahoma County.”

“There will be costs associated with that right off the bat because a lot of those services are not available right now,” said another task force member, Assistant City Manager M.T. Berry.

Berry said the task force’s recommendations will need to be mulled over for the next phase of work, which will involve building new programs. Additional staff will be needed in the district attorney’s office and the jail itself, for example.

Bennett said the task force will move quickly on Vera’s first recommendation: provide governance and oversight of the local justice system. There is no coordinating body for the myriad parties to work together efficiently, Vera’s researchers said. A staffed coordinating council must be a top priority.

The Vera group warned in its report, “If nothing is done to address the systemic drivers of jail overcrowding described in this report, any new facility, regardless of its size, will experience the same problems as the current facility.”


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