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Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Aims To Reduce Incarceration Through New Task Force

From left to right: David Prater, Kris Steele, John Whetsel, Terri White and Clay Bennett participate in a forum Wednesday, Dec. 2, about Oklahoma County's criminal justice system.
Kate Carlton Greer
From left to right: David Prater, Kris Steele, John Whetsel, Terri White and Clay Bennett participate in a forum Wednesday about Oklahoma County's criminal justice system.

Last month the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber outlined a new approach to decrease Oklahoma County’s overcrowded jail population and increase public safety.

The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Task Force is designed to evaluate the criminal justice system in Oklahoma County with help from the VERA Institute of Justice, an independent think tank based in New York. The organization aims to “improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety,” something task force chairman Clay Bennett said was badly needed in Oklahoma County.

During the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Forum, Bennett said reassessing who is booked into the Oklahoma County Jail is of first importance.

“The majority of people in this jail should not be there,” Bennett said. “The driver is, in large measure, people dealing with addiction issues and people dealing with mental health issues.”

Oklahoma County SheriffJohn Whetsel, District Attorney David PraterTEEM Executive Director Kris Steele and Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White spoke Wednesday on a panel discussing the criminal justice challenges their community faces.

Whetsel said the jail was built to house 1,200 inmates, but it typically holds twice that amount on any given day.

Prater said it’s time to develop a more realistic approach to sentencing.

“Everyone that likes to beat their chest and talk about being tough on crime, you’re being tough on people that haven’t had a chance in life, who have made the same mistakes that I made,” Prater said.

“I didn’t get caught and they did. And everyone of you can say the same thing, I’ll bet,” he said.

Steele agreed. He pointed to Oklahoma’s sentencing laws and called on the legislature to act.

“We need to consider reclassifying some of our current offenses that are punishable by felony convictions and  incarceration perhaps to misdemeanors punishable by treatment, particularly if the offense involves some substance abuse or some sort of mental illness,” Steele said. “We’ve got to be able to address those root causes of criminogenic behavior.”

While the county jail’s overcapacity is a main priority, members of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Task Force also hope to increase overall efficiencies within the justice system. 

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