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Task force says services, not size, the key to fixing OKC jail crisis

26-Dec-2016

The Oklahoma County Jail is overcrowded, its staff overburdened, and its inmates under-served. Because of this, the jail is at a crisis, and the solution, according to Sheriff John Whetsel, is to build a bigger jail. 

However, when he presented his plan, leaders said, "Not so fast." Instead of building a bigger jail to house more inmates, they said, perhaps we should look at the reasons the jail is overcrowded in the first place. 

When you put on your pants after the holidays and have trouble buttoning them, the problem isn't that your pants have gotten too small, but that you are trying to shove too much into them. You're trying to put a quantity in that is larger than the pants were designed to hold, but bigger pants does not solve the real problem--you have more weight than you should after your holiday indulgences. The solution isn't to buy a bigger size, but to shrink yourself to a healthier size.

The same is true of the Oklahoma County Jail--with one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation and a tendency to "overcriminalization," we have more inmates than we should. The solution isn't to increase the jail size, but to shrink the jail population to a "healthier size."

A jail task force was created to look at possible solutions, and their findings will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with the disenfranchised in Oklahoma County. Key in the report is that a new jail will not solve the crisis the current jail is in:

"If nothing is done to address the systemic drivers of jail overcrowding described in this report, any new facility, regardless of its size, will experience the same problems as the current facility."

It's like those holiday pants. Sure, you can buy bigger ones, but if you don't change your habits, you will soon find those too tight as well.

One of the most important task force findings is that the county needs to focus on providing mental health and substance abuse services. According to notable Oklahoma City businessman and task force leader Clay Bennett, most Oklahoma County jail inmates have mental health issues or addiction struggles and should be in treatment rather than incarcerated: 

"The last place they need to be is in the county jail. These people are lower-level (offenders), not serious crimes. They're in there because they have an addiction. They're in there because they have mental illness. They can't see through how to get their life in a manageable fashion, and we need to focus on that."

Of course, increased treatment and resource options for those with mental health issues and substance abuse issues come at a cost, and leaders say there must be increased funding for these critical service. Additionally, the state must take legislative action to reduce its overcriminalization of Oklahomans.

When the "new" Oklahoma County Jail was opened in 1991, there were 754 inmates. Earlier this year, when Whetsel requested a new jail, there were 2,581. Nature abhors a vacuum, and based on current trends, if we build a bigger jail, we will just fill it up again and be looking for an even bigger jail a few years down the road. "If you build it, they will come," seems to be the trend in Oklahoma County corrections. 

Hopefully, the tide is turning, and the county will look for ways to implement task force recommendations to reduce the jail population and better serve Oklahomans with mental health issues.



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