Oklahoma County officials need to take a serious look at reducing its incarceration rate before asking local taxpayers to pay for a new jail.
County officials say voters may be asked soon to approve a one-cent sales tax increase, which would raise $350 million over three years. That money would go to building a new jail or improving the current one.
If the county does nothing, the U.S. Department of Justice, which issued a report last year that cited civil rights and overcrowding problems at the jail, will file a lawsuit to increase property taxes over a three-year period to raise money for a jail project, county officials say.
The enforced property tax increase would cost some local residents more than the sales tax, which is partly funded by people outside the county, but sale taxes are by nature regressive and cost low-income people more of a percentage of their wages. (Here’s an article by Brian Bus in The Journal Record that outlines the two types of tax increases.)
Simply put, there are no good options. Taxes are going to go up one way or another.
But underlying the chronic overcrowding problem at the county jail is the pervasive statewide attitude to lock up as many people as possible. The state leads the nation in the per capita number of women incarcerated. It’s overall incarceration rate for 2007 was 665 per 100,000 residents compared to 506 per 100,000 residents nationally. The state normally ranks in the top five among states in incarceration rates.
The U.S. Department of Justice report pointed out the Oklahoma County jail is overcrowded and doesn’t have enough bed space for its approximately 2,500 inmates. Only eight other counties in the nation incarcerate people at a higher rate than Oklahoma County, according to a Justice Policy Institute study.
Unfortunately, reducing the county’s incarceration rate doesn’t seem to be a major part of the recent discussion when it comes to building a new jail, but it’s probably the most critical issue. There are too many nonviolent offenders, many on drug charges, sitting in jails when they could be on parole or in treatment programs. Too many people are arrested, locked up and their lives ruined in the ongoing, disastrous “War on Drugs,” started by former President Richard Nixon.
Oklahoma County officials should join with local judges, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, among others, to find ways to reduce the incarceration rate at the jail. This could prevent future overcrowding problems and tax hikes.