Point of View: OK County needs a jail trust
The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council has endorsed the creation of a jail trust authority to manage the operation and finances of the Oklahoma County jail. Since the creation of a Jail Funding Task Force in 2003, discussions have been ongoing regarding how to move forward with transforming the jail into a 21st-century detention facility.
The task force arose after a failed attempt by former Sheriff John Whetsel to convince voters to approve a permanent four-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax increase to fund jail operations. Voters were more concerned about a lack of accountability and transparency.
A consistent problem faced by those involved with oversight of the jail has been the inability to get accurate financial information from the sheriff’s office. In 2016, District Judge Ray C. Elliott complained that he repeatedly had been given conflicting information and couldn't rely on the accuracy of the figures provided.
Following that incident, District Attorney David Prater requested an investigative audit ultimately revealing that “funds were not expended in a lawful manner.” Whetsel subsequently resigned in February 2017.
Increased deaths in the jail as well as a widely reported incident of an inmate being lost for almost eight months have highlighted the continued management problems. These have occurred even after the federal Department of Justice issued a 2009 report citing “deliberate indifference” and “unconscionable” treatment of inmates and detainees, along with problems of inadequate and “unconstitutional” oversight of the facility.
A jail trust authority would provide several important safeguards to ensure more transparent financial management. It would provide greater financial accountability by reporting financial activity of the jail as a discrete component unit of county government, rather than simply including it as a part of the general county budget. It would also bring greater light upon the special revenue funds that are received by the sheriff’s office. The expenditure of these special revenue funds has lacked any meaningful oversight.
Finally, a jail trust would be able to justify to citizens the present funding levels, or the need for increased funding levels to ensure the facility is operated effectively and efficiently. It would give voters a greater confidence in the administration of their tax dollars.
As county commissioners consider this important decision, they need to ask themselves what action would most increase public confidence that the problems of the jail will be addressed. The establishment of a jail trust authority is an essential step in that direction.