The Oklahoma County jail has become so overcrowded that the situation has reached a crisis point. The population has risen to more than 2,750 people in the past two months. Officials are concerned about how this can affect the safety of detention officers, lawyers, bail bondsmen, officials, and inmates.
County officials and bail bondsmen met recently to discuss the problem. Jail officials said the population needs to be reduced quickly to about 2,300 inmates.
Oklahoma County’s public defender, Robert Ravitz, believes the overcrowding is happening because judges are setting bonds too high for minor crimes. People who are unable to post bond are locked up in jail until their cases go to trial. A motion was passed on September 11 to appoint a committee to review bond amounts set for a variety of crimes.
About 400 more people were arrested by Oklahoma City police in August than in July. Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel believes that is because the Oklahoma City police graduated a new class of recruits in August.
Whetsel said the overcrowded jail has become a new normal. The higher number of inmates has raised costs for all aspects of jail operations beyond the amounts in the requested and allocated budgets.
The sheriff’s office has had to cut 115 positions, which included 65 people. It was forced to make a 25 percent reduction in the patrol division, an 18 percent cut in courtroom and courthouse security, and a 13 percent reduction in detention.
The officials also discussed own recognizance (OR) bonds at the meeting. A person arrested for a minor crime with little or no criminal record would usually qualify for an OR bond. That means the person would be released without having to pay to post bond and would be required to attend all court dates.
District Judge Ray Elliott said he was skeptical of the program because of inaccuracies in some inmates’ information, but he believes overcrowding at the jail is a more pressing issue. He said people are sometimes held five to seven days before they are booked into the jail and able to post bond.
Bondsmen are concerned about OR bonds because no one polices people who are released on their own recognizance. If someone who is released on bond skips a court appearance, the bondsman can send a bounty hunter to find the person.
Bondsmen say OR bonds affect their business. People sometimes wait in jail to see if they will be released on their own recognizance and do not contact bail bondsmen to bail them out. This also contributes to overcrowding at the jail.
A study committee recommended that county commissioners ask voters to approve a sales tax to fund a new $330 million, 2,800-bed jail. Efforts to ask voters to approve the sales tax are on hold because a deadline to call for a November election passed without action being taken. The committee also recommended that the county’s juvenile justice facility be remodeled and improvements be made to mental health and substance abuse programs.