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.