The next sheriff’s top priority

After twenty years in office and a re-election in November, John Whetsel is retiring from his post as Sheriff of Oklahoma County. No one is mourning the loss of his services, and the specter of a Grand Jury hangs over his head. This tells much. But rather than look back, voters in Oklahoma’s most populous county should be looking forward and carefully consider who will take over the reins at 201 N. Shartel. There has been much discussion over the years of the faults of the county jail facility and of how it has been managed. Over the next few months we will get to try to pick the best person to deal with the problem.

The biggest issue is overcrowding, as a drumbeat of reports over the past several years have told us. But identifying overcrowding as the problem is like saying that the primary trouble with a flood is all the water. Whetsel’s policies have tended to keep the jail as full as possible in order to maximize revenue. Just a year ago he was chastised by Judge Ray Elliott for overcharging on the daily fees for holding prisoners. Even without such gouging, the system by which numerous and excessive fees are stacked high upon anyone who finds themselves in jail in Oklahoma has been criticized in extensive reports by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, and Gov. Fallin’s Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force. As the reform efforts point out, only a small percentage of those fees are collected, as huge bills accumulate for those among us with the least ability to pay.

Even ostensibly unrelated problems such as repeatedly blocked or damaged sewage lines or low pay for guards or contraband getting behind the bars would obviously be easier to resolve with fewer inmates in the building. But with the passage of SQ 780 the threshold for property crimes becoming felonies was pushed from $500 to $1000. With more of these crimes being misdemeanors, that means more people serving time in county jails instead of state prisons.

There are many positive steps that the next sheriff can take that would be an improvement over the last twenty years, but nothing will be so important as to implement criminal justice reform that will reduce the number of people that will be held in the county jail. All of the recent reports call for reform in the area of financial charges for inmates. Another popular proposal is to refrain from jailing anyone for low level drug crimes such as simple possession. And the implementation of programs to allow low-risk offenders to bond out on their own recognizance as well as more effective measures to help those same individuals to avoid missing their court dates or otherwise running afoul of the system on procedural grounds would do a lot to improve matters.

Good ideas for criminal justice reform abound in a state like Oklahoma, which has the second highest incarceration rate in the nation. Now that reform road-block John Whetsel is moving out of the way there are many of these ideas that need to be implemented. Oklahoma County voters need to be diligent as they try to discern who would do the best job of being the reform sheriff.