By greenlighting a centerpiece of local criminal justice reform, elected Oklahoma City leaders have taken another step toward trimming the incarceration rate, bolstering diversion programs and reducing recidivism in Oklahoma County.
On Aug. 29, the city council approved its participation in an agreement between the county, Edmond and Midwest City to form the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, a collaborative body committed to implementing systemic changes that would cut the jail population and increase alternatives to incarceration.
“This could be one of the more impactful things we do for Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County,” City Manager James D. Couch said.
The formation of the advisory council — already approved by Edmond and awaiting the go-ahead from Midwest City and county officials — was chief among a host of recommendations made by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group hired by the business community to look at overcrowding in the Oklahoma County jail, and failures in the criminal justice system.
The jail for two decades has been plagued by overcrowding. Designed for a population of 1,200 when it opened in 1991, the jail routinely houses twice that many.
In addition to a paucity of diversion programs, blame is placed on an overburdened court system, a lack of adequate criminal justice staffing and laws that punish those who cannot pay bonds, jail fees and other legal penalties.
Local governments, law enforcement and court agencies in Oklahoma County have been slow to engage in collaborative efforts.
With walled-off departments and little use of data-sharing, public officials have largely been left in the dark about the impact of jail overcrowding on families, particularly those who are poor and face the loss of income and housing in the wake of incarceration.
Composed of law enforcement, court, community and business leaders, the council would collect and analyze systemwide data, set reform priorities and oversee the implementation of proposed changes.
It is the engine that will drive criminal justice improvements in Oklahoma County, said Alex Roth, a Vera representative who has been working with local officials for months.
“It was actually the very first recommendation, because without that established, there's just no way to actually put any reforms into practice or sustain any of the work we're doing,” Roth said. “This is probably the biggest thing I've been working on since I've been out here.”
Vera was contracted by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber to examine jail overcrowding and its causes. The group's recommendation to form the advisory council is consistent with what jurisdictions are doing across the country.
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