Criminal Justice Reform

Greater OKC Chamber Task Force recommendations for reform of Oklahoma County’s criminal justice system

See the full report here. Learn more about the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council here.


The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s Criminal Justice Task Force released a series of recommendations today designed to ease overcrowding conditions at the Oklahoma County Jail and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The recommendations follow a year-long assessment of the various processes that affect the jail population, the decisions that drive these processes, and the costs associated with these decisions.

The task force received policy and research analysis and support from the Vera Institute of Justice, a renowned independent nonprofit national research and policy organization, who prepared the report outlining the assessment and the recommendations.

Clayton I. Bennett, chairman of the Oklahoma City Thunder, serves as the chair of the task force. “We believe these steps are vitally important. 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.”

Six major areas of reform were identified in the recommendations. Despite some constraints imposed by state law and a lack of resources, the majority of these strategies can be implemented at the local level.

  1. Provide governance and oversight of the local justice system. Currently there is no coordinating body that brings together the myriad of actors and decision makers to jointly work together. A staffed coordinating council, with improved capacity for data-driven decision making to spearhead and sustain reforms, is a top priority.
  1. Keep people charged with lower level offenses out of the jail entirely. Research indicates approximately one-quarter of all jail admissions are for low-level municipal and traffic violations. Many of these individuals do not stay in jail for long periods, but they account for much of the volume in booking and processing which slows other operations.
  1. 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. Oklahoma County uses a bail schedule that sets bail amount cumulatively by charge without any individualized consideration of circumstances. Strategies that take into account the likelihood someone will appear in court or the actual public safety risk of release would ensure those who need to be in the jail are kept there and those who do not are released.
  2. 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 jails as their cases proceed through the court system. Delays and system inefficiencies keep them there longer than they need to be. Cases can move quicker by taking steps to shorten the time from arrest to formal charging and from charging to case resolution, as well as reducing failure to appear warrants.
  1. Create alternatives to jail for people with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Data suggests there is a high prevalence of people in the Oklahoma County jail with mental illness, and the most common state misdemeanor and felony charges for jail inmates are drug and/or alcohol related. Finding new resources and pathways to get people out of jail and into treatment will reduce recidivism and improve quality of life and community.
  1. 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. Individuals can easily accumulate thousands, if not tens-of-thousands of dollars’ worth of criminal justice debt. Jail incarceration is an expensive and ineffective response to default of debt, and strategies can help reduce the number of people who land in jail for this reason.

Several of the recommendations have already been implemented at the jail, in the courts and in police procedure.

 “We truly appreciate the work of this task force,” said Ray Vaughn, chair of the Oklahoma County Commissioners. “We have looked at the challenges with the jail facilities, but this process gives us the analysis and information we need to make better decisions about the size and type of facilities we need. I have been overwhelmed by the cooperation and support each member of the task force has shown, working in collaboration to create a new paradigm for how the criminal justice system works in our county.”

Next steps for the task force include the formation of five working groups to further the implementation of the recommendations. Those groups will focus on the following specific areas: governance and data; implementation planning; legislative advocacy; facilities; and engagement.

“We know that we have a lot of work left to do,” said Bill Citty, Chief of Police, City of Oklahoma City. “This process really helped us to identify procedural changes that are more equitable, fair and reduce a person’s time in the jail that can be made without impacting public safety. The process also reinforces the need for integrated data collection and analysis to help us make better policy decisions. It is vital that we invest in staff and shared resources to better coordinate our work - that will pay huge dividends in the future.”

District Attorney David Prater also recognized the importance of the effort. “For those of us who have dedicated our lives to working in this system, we appreciate the emphasis being placed on this by our community,” he said.  “Untreated addiction and mental health issues drive many people into the criminal justice system. We can do a better job of funding and delivering services to people in our community with the goal of improving public safety. The recommended changes in pre-trial procedures and case processing will make our system more efficient and cost effective.”

Overcrowding at the Oklahoma County Jail precipitated the task force formation. One of the task force recommendations regarding changes in booking procedures has already been implemented. “We have already been able to reduce processing time dramatically,” said Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel. “These changes are ensuring law enforcement officers are back out in the field more quickly and the working environment in the operational center is more efficient. We look forward to implementing additional recommendations and continuing this process.”

The Chamber’s task force will continue to meet and function until the creation of a more formalized coordinating council can develop long-lasting processes for data-driven decision making and coordination.