Oklahoma County Government

Oklahoma County Jail Saga Needs Liberal Touch

Oklahoma County Jail by Corry Young on Flickr’s The Commons

The continuing Oklahoma County jail saga is a microcosm of failed conservative ideology when it comes to incarceration in this country.

The ideology is two-fold: Lock up as many offenders as possible in an effort to supposedly deter crime and don’t invest adequate resources into correctional facilities to ensure inmates feel the pain and punishment of their consequences. In a state like Oklahoma these days, Republicans often push the ideology, and many Democrats go along with it afraid to be seen as soft on crime.

The county jail, of course, is a county issue so it makes it seem less partisan than the correctional issues created by the state’s high incarceration rates, but the overall ideological framework underpins it all the same.

The U.S. Justice Department found 60 civil rights violations with the jail back in 2008, and essentially put county officials on notice that they needed to either fix the problems or face a federal takeover.

The county has, indeed, fixed most of the problems outlined in a 2008 report, which included high rates of violence between inmates and guards yet the basic design of the jail itself creates some of the problems. That means the county has to massively renovate the jail or build a new one, which makes the most sense. Each approach would cost millions upon millions of dollars and require some type of tax increase. The federal government, according to media reports, has apparently signaled it was moving forward with a lawsuit to force the issue.

In the past, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and other county officials have promoted a small increase in the county sales tax of only half-a-cent or less, but that hasn’t proven to be popular with voters. If the feds take over, homeowners would automatically face high property taxes to pay for the project. Something has to give eventually.

Conservatives, of course, love to point our their overall ideology is dictated by strict, fundamentalist readings of the U.S. Constitution, but the Eighth Amendment is clear: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” We might debate what constitutes an excessive bail or fine or cruel and unusual punishment, but the intention seems clear enough. The amendment establishes basic human rights for criminal offenders. The jail issue, then, is not going to go away, given the current federal involvement and the constitutional issues raised by the Eighth Amendment.

High incarceration rates here and elsewhere in the country come with a huge cost of taxpayer money. Conservatives will never solve their contradiction of voting to do things that cost a tremendous amount of money while cutting taxes at the same time. In fact, a more liberal approach to decrease incarceration rates of non-violent offenders would allow more money to be spent on education, which could lead to better personal decisions that lower the incarceration rate.

The point is that the solution to the county jail problem is a liberal one: Lower incarceration rates through drug courts and creative sentencing and vote to invest in a new jail through a small tax increase that allows for rehabilitation to reduce recidivism.


Incarceration Reduction Critical To New Jail Project


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.


In Defense of Prater

Picasso painting

(Now is a time for calm in the OKC community as the facts of the case get sorted out. It may well be, as Ersland’s attorney Irven Box predicts, that no jury will convict him. That seems like a good bet to make in Oklahoma, but that doesn’t mean Prater should or could have ignored the law.)

It’s difficult to imagine any rational-thinking person could believe Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater was trying to make a political statement when he charged a local pharmacist with first-degree murder.

The pharmacist, Jerome Jay Ersland, 57, shot a 16-year-old boy to death May 19 during an armed robbery attempt at the Reliable Discount Pharmacy in Oklahoma City, according to media reports.

Even a cursory glance at the facts as reported by the local media shows Prater had a legal duty to respond to the case’s two most significant and current pieces of evidence, a surveillance video and a medical examiner’s autopsy report. These were pieces of evidence surely viewed by others besides Prater. He couldn’t ignore what the evidence showed or what it might mean or how it might be construed, and what’s more he shouldn’t have ignored it.

Was Prater just to dismiss the fact the video allegedly indicates 16-year-old Antwun Parker was incapacitated after being shot initially by Ersland and that the pharmacist retrieved another weapon and came back and shot the boy several more times? (Watch the video here. ) Was he to ignore the fact the autopsy report apparently shows it was the second volley of bullets that killed the boy? Prater has a responsibility to the law as a district attorney.

Here’s another simple question: Can anyone believe that Prater wants this controversy? Prater, for example, argued during a court hearing for the pharmacist that he believes in the right of self-defense and that the pharmacist was not charged over the initial shooting. Meanwhile, Prater has also charged three other people alleged to be involved in the armed robber with first-degree murder and not one of them fired a bullet in the robbery attempt.

No one I know is arguing the pharmacist, who is free on bail, didn’t have a right to protect himself and other employees, or that he shouldn’t have had access to guns. He did have the right. We all have that right. It’s part of the law.

Meanwhile, extremists and contrarians on a local discussion board and the blogosphere have gone overboard with hyperbole about Prater’s charges. The current judge in the case has also received death threats, according to media reports. The case has obviously stirred emotions, but this is definitely not the Second Amendment case some gun advocates seem to want it to be. Ersland was well within the law to have guns and to initially shoot. That’s not in dispute.

Now is a time for calm in the OKC community as the facts of the case get sorted out. It may well be, as Ersland’s attorney Irven Box predicts, that no jury will convict him. That seems like a good bet to make in Oklahoma, but that doesn’t mean Prater should or could have ignored the law. Most people will be sympathetic to a pharmacist suddenly faced with an armed robbery attempt. It’s hard to predict how anyone might react in that situation. It may well be that there will be no trial or other evidence emerges.

But Prater had no choice, with what appears to be obvious and public evidence, to bring charges given what has been made known about the case at this point. He deserves credit for standing with the law, knowing the case would generate massive publicity and he would draw heat. That’s real integrity.