Oklahoma County jail report draws praise from task force members

A consultant's report on the Oklahoma County jail was a real eye-opener to some members of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Task Force, while others said it got right to the heart of issues that need to be addressed.

"I think for years we've had a debtor's prison. I think what we're doing to offenders is unconscionable," said Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz, who serves on the 17-member task force.

Ravitz said the initial report of the Vera Institute of Justice was on point when it talked about how the stacking of fees, fines and bail amounts have overwhelmed indigent offenders and resulted in an overcrowded jail containing many people who don't need to be there.

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"The bond schedules and bond settings in Oklahoma County are ridiculous," Ravitz said. "Bonds are too high. There's no rational basis between the amounts of the bonds, the threat to public safety and the likelihood that the individual will show up in court."

Ravitz said he has been working with Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater for months on a recommendation to revise the bond schedule and make it more reasonable.

Faced with thousands of dollars in court costs, district attorney fees, sheriff's costs, mental health fees, drug testing fees, community sentencing fees and department of corrections fees, people tend to become depressed, give up and quit complying with the terms of their probations, Ravitz said.

Multiple fees, fines and bail charges add to Oklahoma County jail crowding

"Every day I see defendants, not counting jail costs, .... who have $6,000, $7,000, $8,000 in what they owe," Ravitz said. "They can't pay it. What ends up happening is they violate the terms of their probations and they're put back in jail."

"We drug test 10 times a month in drug court," Ravitz said. " They charge $10 per test, and hardly any of the public defender clients can afford that."

Those that have jobs often end up losing them because employers can't deal with employees who have to leave work 10 times a month, he said.

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The Vera Institute report examined a week's worth of arrest bookings by the Oklahoma City Police Department and found that 30 percent of arrest complaints were non-DUI traffic-related complaints.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, who is also on the task force, said that while many of those arrested had multiple traffic complaints, the complaint that often got them taken to jail was driving under suspension. Ravitz mentioned driving without a license and driving without insurance as additional frequent complaints that he sees.

Ravitz said once someone loses a driver's license in Oklahoma, the law makes it so hard to get it back that the person will drive without one and end up getting put back in jail, where fines and fees continue to mount.

The Vera Institute of Justice jail report 

Task force member Roy Williams, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, said the biggest surprise to him was that even though dozens of people make decisions every day that impact Oklahoma County's criminal justice system, there is no one in charge of it.

Every time a new sheriff, judge, police chief or county commissioner comes on board, the system changes, he said. But no one has been asking the basic questions, like: Who does the public really want to see locked up in jail?

With no one looking at the big picture, a system has developed where the county has been using the jail to house large numbers of people booked on traffic offenses and other low-level crimes who are too poor to post bail, Vera researchers found.

The public's attitude has been: Let the people who commit the crimes pay for the costs of the jail's operations, Williams noted.

"But it's not that they can just write a check and it solves the problem," he said. "They don't have the money, and if they don't have the money they sit in jail. And if they sit in jail, they can't go to work. If they don't go to work, they can't make their car payment. They can't make their rent payment. Or if they're a single mom, they can't get their kid to school. There's all this other stuff besides: 'They should pay that fine or they should pay that fee.'

"When you're poor, you can't do that. What you may do is go out and steal some money," he said.

Alternatively, the person may just sit in jail, while taxpayers pick up the tab.

Williams said it is clear from the report that there are ways to safely reduce the size of the jail needed for Oklahoma County by doing things like making greater use of alternative drug and mental health treatment facilities.

What's not clear yet is how much those types of things would cost and whether there is a willingness to pay for it, he said.

"That's going to be the bottom line of the next Vera report — to prioritize for us what we can do, what each of those priorities will cost and what impact they will have on the jail's population," Williams said.

The task force will be thinking not just about the economic cost, but the social and moral costs, as well, he said.

Prater said he believes the right issues are being examined.

While the sheriff and a county study committee initially talked about building a larger, 2,800-person jail at a cost of $365 million, Prater said he believes the task force will ultimately conclude such a large facility won't be needed if changes are made and mental health and drug treatment facilities are improved in the community.

Former state House Speaker Kris Steele, another task force member, said that while a cost analysis has not been done yet, he believes taking the approach Prater suggests may actually cost less money, lower crime and improve the lives of a lot of people.

Prater said he's unsure of the cost, but believes it is the right thing to do.

"Even if it's more expensive to treat our citizens the right way and the correct way, ... that's worth it, because otherwise we're just spending money on a building to house those people in and not addressing their core issues," Prater said.

As for the jail, itself, Prater said: "I would anticipate that we'll come to a point where we'll renovate on the same site and build out probably lower-level dormitory-style facilities for lower level offenders and a medical unit and a mental health unit, as well."

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