As the Oklahoma County Jail seeks to comply with federal demands, and as a deadline for improvements looms, much scrutiny is given to the way Oklahoma County in particular, and the state in general, handles the incarceration of inmates.
Recently, the Oklahoma County Jail was given a two-year reprieve from federal takeover as the county was able to demonstrate that civic leaders were taking measures to improve the final issues. One problem that is being addressed is jail overcrowding. When Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel proposed building a new jail, community leaders balked, thinking maybe the solution isn't a bigger jail, but fewer inmates.
A task force created to look at the issue became concerned when it realized that most of those housed in the Oklahoma County Jail are not convicted inmates, but rather pre-trial inmates who cannot afford bond. The task force is now working with the Vera Institute to find solutions to Oklahoma bond policies. One lawmaker called the Oklahoma County Jail a "debtor's prison" upon learning that so many inmates were simply awaiting trial without the capacity to make bail.
But bond isn't the only thing that creates a financial burden for those in jail. When a person is convicted of a crime, he or she must pay a "daily incarceration rate" to reimburse the county for the cost of the jail stay. The daily incarceration rate, fines, court costs, and probation fees are often insurmountable to those who are already more likely to be impoverished. This inability to pay can put those who are released from jail into a vicious cycle.
Perhaps because of this renewed scrutiny into jail policies, this year's proposed daily incarceration rate was met with outrage.
Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott noticed that "indirect costs" including salaries for court clerk employees, juvenile justice workers, and even the public defender's office were included in the proposed daily incarceration rate. Judge Elliott asked Sheriff John Whetsel, "How in the world can you justify that?"
Whetsel explained that the form used to calculate the daily incarceration rate was a federal form used by states across the nation. He furthered that the Sheriff's Department had been using the same form for 18 years, and no one had been upset at the inclusion of indirect costs in the past.
However, Sheriff Whetsel agreed to drop the indirect costs--some $5.7 million--from the calculations, which dropped the proposed daily incarceration rate from $48.05 per day to $41.48 per day. Judge Elliott said he would not decide whether to approve the new proposal until March 3 to give himself time to gather more information.
Whetsel called the actual rate "immaterial," citing an inability to recover the costs anyway. After all, sending a recently released inmate a bill for thousands of dollars isn't likely to generate actual revenue when the recipient of the bill has no ability to pay.