The Vera Institute of Justice is a nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice policy and practice. They work with government leaders and community organizations nationwide as well as internationally to help improve the systems that people rely on for justice and safety by providing expertise in research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance.
Vera undertook a study at the request of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and conducted a three-day site visit to Oklahoma City from November 17-19, 2015. During that visit, Vera staff toured the Oklahoma County Detention Center and met with representatives from the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, the Oklahoma City Police Department (“OCPD”), the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office, the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office, the City of Oklahoma City Manager’s Office, the Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, TEEM, a district judge from the Seventh Judicial Circuit, Oklahoma County Court Services, the Inasmuch Foundation, and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
After completing the study, Vera, hopes that going forward they can provide a helpful framework for thinking about the following questions, which are critical to a comprehensive and impactful discussion about the purpose and use of the Oklahoma County Detention Center:
- Who should be in your jail?
- Who is there now?
- Why are they there?
- What steps can be taken to ensure that the jail holds only those who should be there?
Vera’s brief review of Oklahoma County’s local criminal justice system suggests that there are a number of potential drivers of jail population growth that could be addressed locally, with long-term impacts on the jail population. Many low-level (misdemeanant or traffic), non-violent defendants are taking up jail beds, not necessarily because anyone specifically decided that these individuals were at risk of failing to appear in court or were a threat to public safety and therefore should be in the jail. Case processing delays, which may be caused by problems with the process itself or by short staffing in many places due to budget issues and staff turnover, make those jail stays longer than they should be. There is an attempt to transfer the costs of running the system to those who pass through it, by assessing fines and fees. This is problematic, first, because that isn’t, to quote the bank robber Willie Sutton, where the money is, and, second, because the burden that it places on low-income individuals in the community may be counterproductive to the goal of improving public safety.
The data Vera reviewed on jail admissions from the OCPD was limited (and OCPD is not the only law enforcement agency responsible for jail bookings in Oklahoma County) and raise many more questions than they answer, but there are patterns that would benefit from further investigation. Many people appear to be entering the jail because of traffic violations or other low-level non-violent misdemeanors or violations, and most are spending more than a day before being released. Given the persistent overcrowding at the jail, which leads to booking and release delays, it is worth examining, first, whether the post-booking short holds for municipal violations are a worthy investment of resources. According to Oklahoma City, they have reduced arrests for municipal ordinance violations but the data suggest that there are still regular bookings for these cases. OCPD has the authority under state law (OK Code § 22-209) to use summons and release.
The task force has agreed to engage Vera for a second, more in-depth study of the county’s criminal justice system and jail, which could take seven to nine months to complete.