Oklahoma County gets two-year reprieve to resolve jail issues

by Randy Ellis Published: January 19, 2016 Updated: Jan 19, 2016

Impressed with initial steps civic leaders have taken to resolve Oklahoma County's overcrowded jail and criminal justice issues, the U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to postpone potential civil rights litigation for at least two years.

"The threat of a takeover is now on the sideline," Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said Tuesday during a meeting of the Rotary Club of Oklahoma City.

Department of Justice officials agreed to the two-year grace period after Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater went to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 11 and spent three hours discussing how community leaders were committed to taking a holistic approach to resolving the county's criminal justice issues rather than just building a bigger jail.

The Department of Justice will continue to monitor the county's jail operations throughout the grace period to make sure local authorities are making progress and continuing to comply with requirements of a memorandum of understanding that is currently in place, Prater said.

"They all believe we will actually implement a better and a broader solution for this process than the feds coming in and taking over this system,” Williams said.

Opened in 1991 with an inmate capacity of 1,200, the Oklahoma County jail now routinely houses about 2,500 inmates a day.

The $52 million jail has been plagued by problems since the beginning and for more than five years has been under federal oversight because of an investigation that documented 60 civil rights violations.

All but a few of those issues have been corrected, but Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel
has said extensive and expensive renovations or construction of a new building would be necessary to resolve remaining problems.

However, when Whetsel sought support for construction of a new jail from Oklahoma business leaders, they took a poll and found a lack of community support for a new jail.

The civic leaders then suggested taking a different approach.

They suggested the county should first determine how many people were being incarcerated in situations where both they and the community would be better served if something different were done — such as diverting people with mental illnesses or drug or alcohol abuse problems to treatment programs.

A task force of business and community leaders headed by Clay Bennett, chairman of the ownership group for the Oklahoma City Thunder, was formed to study the issues and make recommendations.

One of the task force's most important early steps was to retain the services of New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice to study the Oklahoma County jail and make recommendations, Williams said.


Successes elsewhere

The Vera Institute of Justice is an independent, nonpartisan center that has a long track record of helping communities resolve criminal justice problems similar to ones facing Oklahoma County.

Institute officials were able to point to several communities that have successfully addressed criminal justice issues.

Albuquerque, N.M., “faced the same problem we're facing — significant overcrowding and a broken process,” Williams said.

With a series of reforms, that city was able to reduce its county jail population by 40 percent in two years, Williams said.

If Oklahoma County were to have the same level of success, it could reduce its daily inmate population by about 1,000, at a potential savings of more than $17 million a year, he said.

New Orleans had similar success, Williams said.

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had a jail population of 6,300 people and an incarceration rate that was more than five times the national average, he said.

After the hurricane, the community initially discussed building a 5,800-bed facility, but instead chose to focus on reforms.

“Ultimately, New Orleans approved the construction of 1,438-bed jail,” Williams said.

“That's less than 25 percent of what their previous capacity was.”

And both communities now have lower crime rates, he said.


OKC jail stays

The Vera Institute of Justice's initial look at Oklahoma County identified several ways the number of people in jail could be lowered through reforms, Williams indicated.

From the time of arrest to the time the district attorney files charges, a person can spend 10 days sitting in jail — sometimes without the services of a defense attorney, Williams said.

“They found that many low level — meaning misdemeanor or traffic, nonviolent offenders are actually taking up a lot of our jail beds,” he said.

“They saw many case processing delays that caused people also to stay in jail longer than they should. And there were significant assessments of fines and fees, essentially, that transfer the cost of running our system to the people who are least able to pay for it, and that's the offender.”

On any given day, about 80 percent of the people in jail have not yet been convicted of crimes, he said.

And more than 70 percent of those individuals are only charged with misdemeanors. And, on a typical day, more than 400 inmates have significant mental health issues that are untreated.


Financial challenges

Vera representatives found the potential reform that is “ripest for change” involves “non-monetary pretrial release, and how do you manage that, along with the entire bail bond process,” Williams said.

Changing that system can be challenging because special interests have significant influence, he said.

“Vera noted that many fees are imposed on people who are convicted, even of very minor offenses,” Williams said.

He cited numerous examples, such as jail bed fees, court fines, drug and mental health court fees and probation fees.

“What this does is it keeps people mired in debt and potentially poverty and creates a cycle they can't get out of,” he said. “So, in essence, if you can't pay the fees, you're put back in jail and assessed more fees.”

The consultants found judges here tend to sentence individuals to “very excessive probation terms,” which also create large financial burdens, he said.

The task force expects to soon sign a contract with Vera for a more detailed, data analysis study that is expected to take seven to nine months, Williams said.

The task force then will use results of the study to make recommendations designed to decrease the incarceration rate and improve the overall criminal justice system, Williams said.

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