There's a time bomb ticking at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center which has all the makings of either a fiscal or security crisis, or both. The ingredients of this tinder box are well known. They include an over-capacity population of violent offenders, underfunded critical needs which the Justice Department has declared in the past must be provided, few if any available alternatives to incarceration, a rising tide of arrests that coincides with having more police on the streets, and a system that backs up at the state and federal level and slows down transfers out of the jail.
When voters approved the construction of the new 750,000-square foot jail, it was believed that its 1,714-inmate capacity would be more than adequate. The Moss facility was to serve all of the arrests from the cities throughout Tulsa County, as well as hold inmates waiting to be transferred to state or federal facilities. Time has proven that to be wrong. On any given day in recent times, the population hovers around 1,800. And on any given day, more are coming in than are going out. As that voice in the field told Kevin Costner, "If you build it, they will come." And they have. And any reasonable person can see what's about to happen in this powder keg.
Keeping inmates is not cheap. For every inmate, the jail must provide food, medical care, clothing, laundry, personal items, transportation to and from court, doctor visits for mental exams, and hospitalizations. Added to this is the overhead of any business --staff, utilities, supplies, equipment, record-keeping, and administration.
The sheriff's office has come up with every conceivable way to find enough room to squeeze in one more bed. Lately, the inmates are crashing in cots they refer to as "boats," because it's like sleeping in a canoe. On top of that, new staff hiring continues in order to supervise the growing population, and there is a growing dependence on overtime pay.
When the jail was built, the voters approved a permanent 1/4 cent sales tax for operations. That was back in 1995. It's clear that while the sales tax has ebbed and flowed with the recessionary periods since then, the costs of jail operations has continued to rise. Today, the jail's budget is about $25 million. With the increase of inmates and the cost to keep them, it is projected that the jail operations could face a shortfall of $1million. Where will that money come from? Will there be a court order to stop taking new inmates due to overcrowding? How many more beds, bunks, or "boats" can be squeezed into the jail?
All affected public officials -- from judges to law enforcement, government officials to elected officials, prosecutors to fiscal officers -- are working together to find some solutions. Money is certainly part of it. But what else can be considered?
There are no easy or cheap answers. But there are some things which may help relieve the problem in the short term.
One would be for the city to find a way to reopen the Adult Detention Center (ADC) in west Tulsa. The city-owned medium secured facility can house up to 300 inmates. Due to disrepair and the cost to fix it up, the city chose to close it rather than expend money to use it. Now it sits empty and vacant. Clearly, it should be repaired to the point that at least the illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, or non-violent offenders, or perhaps female offenders could be housed there.
Many of the Moss inmates are there for minor offenses or serving time to pay off fines and costs. We need to go back in time to create the work crew or "chain gang" as they were called. Under strict supervision, we need to put these guys out on the streets doing public work projects, doing the hard manual labor, picking up litter, doing manual public service projects, removing graffiti, mowing public property, working at the animal shelter, or any number of projects to work off the money they owe.
Perhaps there are some who are awaiting trial who could be released with increased usage of electronic monitoring, ankle monitors, and other means of tracking them.
At some point, we will have to stop being the babysitter for the state correctional systems. Yes, they too have capacity and funding issues, but the state has a lot more money to address this than do the citizens of Tulsa County. If a court sentences someone to the custody of the State Department of Corrections, they need to be dropped at their doorstep as quickly as possible.
Citizens like the idea of not having to think about the people in the jail. They are there, after all, because they did something that deserves confinement. That's how a community maintains civil order and preserves the peace. But we have learned that even with a jail the size of Woodland Hills Mall, there are physical and fiscal limits. We have also learned that you can't stop criminal behavior by building your way out of it anymore than you can stop traffic congestion by building more streets.
Fortunately for Tulsa, we have one of the best sheriffs in the country in Stanley Glanz, who is responsible for the jail operations. With his staff and the leadership of the Tulsa Criminal Justice Authority, the city must listen to what they say they need and support their decisions so they can do the job we hired them to do, which is protecting Tulsa.
It's not Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It's beds, bunks, and boats. And there is no more room at the inn.
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