Hamilton: Detention center vote may be most important

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Arnold Hamilton

Next week’s primaries are packed with marquee races.

Two Republican – and one Democrat – fights that will help determine their party’s nominees for the US Senate. An intra-GOP kerfuffle over whether Governor Kevin Stitt deserves a second term. And battles for Attorney General, State Superintendent, Congress, District Attorneys, State District Judges and more.

Every important, yes. But I submit that no single voting decision is as important as the $260 million bond issue that would help fund the construction of a new Oklahoma County Jail.

The Oklahoma County dungeon? Why should anyone in the other 76 counties in the state care? Simple. After years of a disastrous lock and key approach to criminal justice that has made Oklahoma the world leader in incarceration, the state is slowly and fitfully taking steps to fight back. intelligently against crime. How Oklahoma County — the most populous in the state — plays out will help set the tone for what’s to come statewide.

Oklahoma’s efforts to reinvent crime and punishment intensified in 2016 when voters approved State Questions 780 and 781. SQ 780 reclassified simple drug possession and some property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors; SQ 781 ordered that savings from a projected decline in the prison population be directed to addiction and mental health services.

Unfortunately, lawmakers have been slow to embrace the smart-on-crime model, fearing it could spark a crime wave – a nightmare scenario sold endlessly by those financially dependent on locking up as many people as possible ( think: the prosecutors and the companies that help supply the prisons).

This year, however, the Legislative Assembly passed important changes aimed at helping those trapped in the criminal justice system avoid future incarceration. For example, state boards can no longer refuse to grant professional licenses to people convicted more than five years ago, although the change does not apply to violent or sexual offenses. In addition, lawmakers have made it easier for parolees to get credits that reduce the length of time they remain under state supervision — a strategy other states have deployed to help reduce recidivism.

State-level criminal justice reforms provide important context when analyzing the proposed new Oklahoma County Jail, especially since the capital detention is the de facto largest facility. of Oklahoma Mental Health.

Sold more than three decades ago to voters as the long-term solution to the capital’s prison problems, the 13-storey establishment has been anything but. It has often been derided as “the money pit”, better known for escapes and deaths, bedbugs and sewer backups than the humane treatment of its temporary residents.

Was it poorly designed? Was the construction shabby? Was it mismanagement? All the foregoing?

These questions do not allow voters to simply trust the powers that be asking them now to start the process again. How do they know we won’t be in the same position three decades and hundreds of millions of tax dollars from now?

I’m torn on how to vote. Proponents argue that only a new, state-of-the-art prison can provide humane and effective security for inmates and prison staff, provide needed mental health and addictions treatment, and ensure public safety.

Opponents are equally persuasive in saying the money could be better spent on “restorative care” that helps get people back on their feet, including neighborhood, non-jail, mental health facilities and initiatives. of housing aimed at reducing the homeless population of the capital.

On top of these important public policy debates: The US Department of Justice is monitoring prison conditions and could force Oklahoma County officials — and taxpayers — to act.

Would the proposed $260 million prison approval preclude federal intervention? Would that really advance the smart-on-crime approach that Oklahoma voters clearly want? Or is it akin to the reorganization of the lounge chairs on the Titanic?

Stay tuned.

Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.org.

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