By Mark Faulk
On June 28th, voters in OK County will be asked to approve or reject a Chamber of Commerce created $260 million Jail Bond issue that could end up costing taxpayers as much as a billion dollars and increase incarceration as much as 50%. We strongly believe, and statistics back us up, that voters should reject this proposal and send a clear message that we instead support implementing proven, fiscally responsible, common sense measures that can cut the jail population in half. While we all agree that the current jail has problems, this proposition is, quite simply, the wrong proposal at the wrong time.
This is not a partisan issue, and it’s not just about a bigger billion dollar jail. This is about the direction we as a county will take for decades to come. Do we want to follow the lead of the rest of the country, which has reduced incarceration by 37% in the last 14 years, or do we want to double down on incarceration in a state that already has the second highest incarceration rate in the entire world?
For years, reformers have advocated for restorative justice first. Instead of criminalizing mental health by building a mental health pod inside the new jail (as the proposition mandates), we could use both county and state pandemic funds to build community based mental health facilities. Our county jail should not be, as Commissioner Brian Maughan put is, “our defacto mental health facility”. A study by the nationally respected Vera Institute for Justice (entitled “Broken Ground: Why America Keeps Building More Jails and What It Can Do Instead), said of jails with mental health pods: “the experience of isolating confinement in a facility the primary aim of which remains control, surveillance, and punishment will still be traumatic for people, intrinsically limiting the rehabilitative potential of a jail’s new treatment capacity.”
As an effective alternative to the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality of the last fifty years, we could further reduce the jail population with increased drug and alcohol treatment centers, transitional housing and programs for the homeless, and bail relief for low level offenders, many of whom are wasting away simply because they don’t have the money to post bail. In fact, 80% of those detained in the county jail have not been convicted of anything, and are still awaiting trial.
These programs work across the country, and they will work here. The same Vera Institute study showed that, in counties that built new jails, “in a time of declining crime rates—the median jail population rose 27 percent after construction was completed”. That approach is both ineffective and fiscally irresponsible. As an alternative to ever-increasing incarceration rates, cities and counties across the nation have begun to reject proposals to build ever larger jails, and have instead chosen to focus on common sense restorative justice. As a result, those communities have drastically reduced their incarceration rates while still maintaining public safety, including: Philadelphia, PA (40% reduction), Cook County, IL (40%), Orleans Parish, LA (60%), and Miami-Dade County, FL (40%). We believe that Oklahoma County voters are ready for a new approach to criminal justice reform, one that will greatly reduce the jail population, while at the same time keeping our citizens safe.
Even for supporters of a new jail, this is a horrible proposal, vague, poorly written, and a bad deal for OK County voters. Moments before the County Commissioners voted unanimously to pass the bond issue, county bond counsel John Michael Williams said that the proposition “does not include any plans for the size, location, capacity, shape, or any other specifications for the jail facility.” It also does not tell us how much the jail will cost, where additional funding will come from, when it will be completed, what type of mental health facility will be built, or who will run the mental health facility. It doesn’t provide any funding to run or maintain the new jail, and although the billionaire controlled Chamber of Commerce has promised to create a citizen oversight committee, the proposition doesn’t even mention that, much less stipulate who will appoint its members. Imagine if a prospective homeowner were presented a contract to build a new home that included no design specifications, no size, no location, no cost, no oversight, and no timeline for completion. No responsible citizen would sign off on it, nor should we sign off on this rigged proposal.
The bond question does, however, allow for a 30-year interest rate of “up to 10%”. At that rate, this proposition alone could cost taxpayers over a billion dollars, and won’t even cover the cost of completing or maintaining the facility. That’s nearly 10 times our entire yearly county budget! There will be nothing left for the vital services that keep our county prosperous, much less for the justice reform measures we so sorely need. When the billionaires tell us that we can have a bigger jail with no new taxes, we know that’s a lie.
Additionally, the Jail Trust has an abysmal record of managing and maintaining the current jail. Five separate County Health Department inspections have listed dozens of pages of violations, including failure to properly provide medications, infestations of bedbugs, mice, and cockroaches, no soap or water for inmates, and only 8 guards on duty to oversee 1800 detainees. Every single inspection cited a failure of management, supervision, and maintenance as the primary issues at the jail. There are also ongoing Grand Jury and DOJ investigations into constitutional violations and criminal negligence at the jail. Why would we give the Jail Trust and their administrators a bigger jail and more detainees when they can’t even properly run the current facility?
The facts are clear: building new and larger jails increases incarceration, while implementing proven alternative methods of restorative justice not only greatly reduces incarceration, but keeps residents safe and saves taxpayer money as well. We strongly believe that this is the only reasonable, fiscally responsible direction for Oklahoma County, and urge voters to vote no on increasing mass incarceration on June 28th.