New Report Outlines Recommendations for Reforming Oklahoma City’s Criminal Justice System

New York, NY—The Vera Institute of Justice and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Criminal Justice Task Force today released a report outlining how the county can safely reduce its jail population and create a more just and effective local justice system. 

Oklahoma City has followed national trends in explosive jail growth: since 1983, the county jail population in Oklahoma County has grown from 495 people to 2,581, a more than fivefold increase. Recent concerns about the jail’s size and conditions prompted discussions about whether to replace it at significant cost to the county, and in response, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce convened the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Criminal Justice Task Force. Rather than just considering whether to build a new and bigger jail, they set out to understand—with Vera’s assistance conducting a data-driven analysis—why the jail was overcrowded, how it was used, and whether that use actually serves the county’s public safety needs effectively. 

Clayton I. Bennett, chairman of the Oklahoma City Thunder, serves as the chair of the task force. “We believe these steps are vitally important,” Bennett said in response to the report. “To have a healthy community, we must also have a fair, effective, and efficient justice system. This work is helping us to better understand the physical infrastructure needed in addition to the procedural changes. We know that our county jail needs renovation, if not replacement, and to plan for that work we needed to understand what was driving the increase in jail population and how improved processes could play a role. We now have a game plan to execute and make significant and important changes.” 

“We commend the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce for  recognizing that jail misuse is an issue for the entire community—one that will not be solved by simply building a bigger jail. The leadership the Chamber has shown is unusual and should be a national model,” said Vera President Nicholas Turner. “We were pleased to partner with the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Reform Task Force to take on this urgent work. As we have seen in communities nationwide, the excessive use of pretrial detention unnecessarily destabilizes too many people’s lives—in direct conflict with our best principles of equal justice, protection of liberty, and fairness. We hope that more communities like Oklahoma City will begin to ask questions about their own jail use.” 

The report presents findings and recommendations from Vera’s data analysis and stakeholder interviews, and identified six major areas of reform. Despite some constraints imposed by state law and a lack of resources, the majority of these strategies can be implemented at the local level. While these recommendations are tailored to Oklahoma County’s criminal justice system, they reflect general best practices:

  1. Provide governance and oversight of the local justice system, beginning with a staffed coordinating council.
  2. Keep people charged with lower level offenses out of the jail entirely. Approximately one-quarter of Oklahoma County’s jail admissions are for low-level municipal and traffic violations.
  3. Create an effective, evidence-based process for deciding who stays in jail while their case proceeds and who goes home. Currently, the ability to afford cash bail is the largest determinant of who stays in the jail before trial.
  4. Improve the processes that move cases through the court system. While almost half of those who come into the jail are released within three days, another half linger in the jail as their cases proceed through the court system.
  5. Create alternatives to jail for people with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. As in many places, there is a high prevalence of people in the Oklahoma County jail with mental illness, and the most common state misdemeanor and felony charges were drug and alcohol related.
  6. Stop jailing people who don’t have money for not paying fines, fees, and court costs. There are at least 103 fines and fees codified in state statute and another 26 in municipal code, and individuals can easily accumulate thousands of dollars’ worth of criminal justice debt.

In the coming months, the task force will form working groups to further the implementation of the recommendations, and will continue to meet until the creation of a more formalized coordinating council can develop long-lasting processes for data-driven decision making and coordination.

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