Last month the Chamber announced the creation of a task force that will examine the Oklahoma County criminal justice system. The most obvious issue in that system is the overcrowded Oklahoma County jail. Its troubling infrastructure is a problem that we have avoided for far too long, but it is not the only topic of concern for our community. The fact of the matter is this: Building a bigger or better jail will not solve our overcrowding problem.
Consider the following figures from the Vera Institute of Justice:
• Oklahoma County has a jail incarceration rate of 510 per 100,000 county residents ages 15-25. The national average is 350 per 100,000.
• In our state, Oklahoma County’s incarceration rate also leads the three largest counties by population, with Tulsa County having a little less than 400 per 100,000 residents incarcerated and Comanche County with 320 per 100,000.
• More than 80 percent of the inmates of the Oklahoma County Jail have not been convicted of a crime, compared to the national average of 62 percent.
A true solution must address not only the physical problems of the jail facility, but also the comprehensive needs of our community – stronger rehabilitation efforts, consistent sentencing and improvements in the judicial process. Without a doubt, efforts moving this issue forward will also focus on improving the treatment of mental illness.
While this problem is daunting, I am encouraged by ongoing conversations with leaders in our county’s criminal justice system about how we can holistically address this problem. We can accomplish more than a improving a facility or fixing a broken system. We can ensure that our community is a place where all people have the opportunity to reach their highest potential.