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Will new laws ease crowding in packed county jails?

Some local officials worry that two state questions approved by Oklahoma voters could strain already packed county jails, although supporters believe the new laws will actually reduce jail populations.

Some are also skeptical that counties will see significant funding for treatment programs that are supposed to provide an alternative to incarceration for those convicted of simple drug possession or low-level property crimes.

State Questions 780 and 781, which took effect July 1, will affect county jails because simple drug possession and low-level property crimes are no longer felonies, for which offenders may be sentenced to state prison; those crimes are now misdemeanors, for which offenders may serve up to 12 months in county jail, altogether forgoing prison. 

Kris Steele, chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, anticipates the population of county jail inmates to decrease over time, while Jason Hicks, district attorney for District 6, and William Hobbs, administrator of Comanche County Detention Center, predict an increase in the population. 

Dentention center overcrowded

The Comanche County Detention Center is overcrowded, sitting at 130 percent capacity, with 369 inmates booked in a center built for 283, as of June, Hobbs said. 

To prevent eight inmates from sleeping in a four-person cell, some of the inmates sleep on portable beds in the day room area of the pods, Hobbs said.

"We do our best to keep everybody separated," he said. "We're already operating about 45 (inmates) to one (staff member)."

The design of the jail, which has cells inside of pods, ensures that inmates are grouped in small, as opposed to large, groups, Hobbs said.

The problem is that the majority of inmates remain in the county jail on "pending cases," Hobbs said, and only about 15 inmates are sentenced to the county jail.

Hobbs believes the potential influx of inmates as a result of State Question 780 will put "the burden back on the county jail." 

If additional inmates are booked in the county jail as an effect of State Question 780, county authorities will have to remodel or build an annex in order to compensate for the influx of inmates, Hobbs said. 

"That's going to take time and money that basically the county doesn't have right now," he said.

Hobbs believes some offenders may take misdemeanor charges less seriously than felonies, which may lead to an increase in the number of misdemeanor charges, thus an increase in the number of inmates booked into the county jail. 

In agreement with Hobbs, Hicks said his concern lies with how county authorities, including the sheriff offices, district attorneys and police departments, will address the potential increase in county jail inmates.

Any increase in the number of inmates will cause a "massive problem" because authorities must decide which inmates to release safely back into the community "based upon the crimes that were committed," Hicks said.

"Obviously, somebody's sitting in jail on bail for a murder case, rape, robbery, child molestation ... is going to remain in jail," he said. "You've got the sheriffs in the position of saying, 'I've got all these violent criminals over here that are on bond, and I cannot let them out. Then I got all these other defendants who are in my jail on possession of CDS (controlled dangerous substance) charges. They're the ones that are causing the overcrowding.'"

State Question 781 created the County Community Safety Investment Fund, which will consist of any calculated savings from prison costs, and the amount saved will be distributed among counties based on population to provide community rehabilitation programs. 

Steele said the intent of State Question 781 is for low-level, nonviolent offenders to receive help from treatment centers instead of serving time in county jails.

Steele believes State Question 780 and 781 will decrease the population of both the state prisons and county jails overtime. 

"The PEW Foundation did research over the impact of these two state questions, and they indicate that it should reduce the jail population in Oklahoma by about 3,000 beds over the course of the next ten years," Steele said. "This is not intended to put more people in jail. It's intended to connect people with treatment."

Jails should be reserved for those who "pose a legitimate danger or threat to society" and not "nonviolent offenders who battle addiction and who could be better served through treatment and appropriate supervision in the community," Steele said.

The Lawton Constitution

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