Locked in on solutions: Task force will look at county jail, criminal justice reform

By: Brian Brus The Journal Record December 2, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY – The multimillion-dollar funding of federally mandated improvements at the Oklahoma County Jail will likely be resolved before the next presidential election via sales tax or property tax, Clayton Bennett said Wednesday.

Bennett, who is president of Dorchester Capital and past chairman of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, also told a chamber forum luncheon that correcting long-standing problems at the jail will require more than new construction or repairs. The underlying criminal justice system and outdated policies that disproportionately punish the poor must be addressed as well, he said.

To that end, Bennett announced he is chairing a chamber-sponsored task force composed of 17 other government, business and civic leaders to evaluate justice programs and make recommendations to reduce incarcerations and improve the jail’s safety.

The task force is a response to ongoing discussions between county officials and the U.S. Department of Justice over civil rights violations found at the jail several years ago. Federal investigators found the 25-year-old jail lacked sufficient oversight and was violently overcrowded. They also noted inadequate mental health services for detainees.

In order to avoid sanctions, the county agreed to provide regular reports of improvements to a list of more than 60 problems, such as ensuring all jailers and medical staff receive training on suicide prevention and refining the intake screening process to identify new detainees at risk for suicide.

“The county shall provide safe housing and adequate supervision of suicidal detainees in suicide-resistant cells,” according to the original memorandum of understanding. “The location of the cells shall provide full visibility to staff. … Any observer responsible for a suicide watch shall have a clear, unobstructed view of the suicidal detainee at all times.”

Bennett and the forum panel Wednesday addressed the need for more diversion programs to reduce detainee numbers, as well as treatment options and bonding policy revisions. The chamber has also contracted with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit social science consulting organization, to provide an assessment and recommendations. Bennett said the community has undergone a perception shift that emphasizes the need for more interactive rehabilitation instead of extended detention and mounting fees.

However, the group did not directly address the Justice Department’s concerns about the building’s construction Wednesday.

“The large number of detainees, combined with the awkward physical layout of the jail, makes providing adequate sight and sound supervision of detainees in their housing units extremely difficult,” Justice Department inspectors said in one of their reports. “Blind spots exist within the housing units … which cannot be monitored with cameras.”

The jail has also experienced several collapsed water lines that resulted in kitchen shutdowns and toilet sewage backups.

Ultimately, the Justice Department might still force the issue and require new facilities at taxpayers’ expense, regardless of the county’s best intentions. Officials have said that given Oklahoma County’s budget, the debt would probably be paid via a property tax hike over three years.

In a prepared statement released concurrently with the chamber luncheon, Bennett briefly touched on that possible outcome.

“The system and the jail must be addressed not only to respond to the Department of Justice but to do the right thing and show leadership,” Bennett said. “We will likely need to make investments in facilities through a temporary county sales tax and through increases in funding with a small permanent sales tax or increase in property tax.

“We know we cannot address all of these issues all at once, but we must take a meaningful step as it relates to facilities, reforms and programs,” he said.

After the forum, chamber President Roy Williams said neither he nor anyone at the organization has been in contact with the Justice Department. He also said no one in District Attorney David Prater’s office has suggested the chamber’s efforts will sway the federal government’s decision.

“Not directly,” Williams said. “But based on what we’ve learned over the years about this, one of the big concerns the Department of Justice had with the county was the whole mental health issue. … Certainly, mental health is right on target for what we’re going after.”

“You could surmise that they would like the direction we’re going in,” he said. “The fact that we have it front and center? You’d think they would look favorably upon that.”

Bennett, who also chairs the group that owns the Oklahoma City Thunder, said county stakeholders aren’t interested in paying for a new jail building on its own; a holistic approach is needed.

The other forum panelists, Prater; Whetsel; Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry; and Terri White, commissioner for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, agreed with him.

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