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County Level Justice 101

The conversation around justice reform in Oklahoma County has elevated in the last several years and we’re glad to see heightened public interest. Our criminal justice system impacts our entire community, with high costs related to operating our current detention center to the successes we’re seeing with diversion programs that help to rehabilitate those with low-level offenses to the excessively long waiting period for a trial. It is all of our responsibilities to learn about the issues and work toward solutions.


The Organizations That Make Up Our Criminal Justice System Here are some of the organizations that play a role in some aspect of law enforcement, the judicial system, detention, diversion, treatment and reform:

Criminal Justice Advisory Council: CJAC is a task force that focuses on reforming the criminal justice system and making recommendations for improvements. CJAC was created to meet The Vera Institute’s 2015 recommendations. While our committee does not manage or control any parts of the justice system, we create a space for law enforcement, business and community leaders, nonprofits, judges and others to come together and craft new policies for reforming some of the worst problems in the county’s system. We focus on solutions that will reduce new bookings into the jail, provide fair treatment and offer alternatives to jail or prison sentences. All but four of our council members are automatically appointed based on their positions (city managers, county commissioners, sheriff, public defender, district attorney, etc.). The remaining four are nominated based on their community involvement, such as nonprofit or business leaders. No one is compensated for their work on the CJAC task force; it is community service or an extension of their professional position.

Jail Trust, or Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority: This is the citizen-led governing body that oversees the budget, administration and operations of the Oklahoma County. In the past, the county sheriff was responsible for the jail operations, but this group of nine people took over operations in 2019 after many years of deteriorating conditions in the jail. They are responsible to hire and evaluate the work of the jail administrator, the top paid staff position, or the person “who runs” the operations of the Oklahoma County Detention Center. No one is compensated for their work on the Trust Authority; it is community service or an extension of their professional position.

Oklahoma County Detention Center (the Jail): this is where law enforcement officers bring detainees upon arrest. Anywhere between 70-85% of people held at the Oklahoma County Detention Center are awaiting trial. Note that most jail detains people who are not yet convicted of a crime and prison is for those who are formally convicted. The OCDC is staffed by working professionals who live in our community: cooks, health care workers, maintenance workers, detention officers, etc. The OCDC budget is designated by the Oklahoma County Commissioners and is funded mostly through property taxes. Oklahoma County is the only county in the state that does not have a dedicated sales tax for county operations.


County Commissioners: Three Commissioners are elected to their seats by a vote of the people who live in Oklahoma County and their votes decide certain county policies, initiatives and budget priorities. At least one commissioner must sit on the CJAC task force.

Diversion Partners: Many nonprofits provide diversion programs, and their work has made a drastic impact in reducing the jail population by getting those who commit low-level offenses into drug and alcohol treatment, counseling, work-readiness programs and more. We partner with Diversion Hub, ReMerge, TEEM, treatment courts and others.


Law Enforcement: All Oklahoma County municipalities bring detained people to the Oklahoma County Detention Center (ie: Oklahoma County Jail). The Oklahoma County Sheriff is an elected position that is automatically appointed to CJAC. Police from each of CJAC’s municipalities (Oklahoma City, Edmond, Midwest City) are represented on the CJAC task force.



Judges: Oklahoma County has a drug court with one judge, a district court with six judges and juvenile court. The “dockets,” or list of cases awaiting trial, varies and each judge sees about from as few as 10 defendants per day to as many as 100. COVID, and the inability to gather in a courtroom, has exacerbated the case load in recent years. Those awaiting trial sometimes have to spend months or years in the County Detention Center before their case is heard by a judge or jury.



Frequently Asked Questions Our justice system is complex, and the following topics clarify frequent concerns:

Why Does the Jail Population Fluctuate? The majority of Oklahoma Detention Center detainees move into and out of the jail in short stints so the “population” on any given day is not a static group of people. Upwards of 80% are held pretrial, and many are facing drug charges (and therefore often make good candidates for treatment). As of late 2021 the jail no longer houses juveniles. In terms of jail capacity, the American Correctional Association (ACA) standard recommends that 15% of a jail’s beds be empty keep space available to move detainees around easily (in the event people needed to be separated for health or safety reasons) so jail capacity doesn’t necessarily reflect how many people should be detained.

Where Does Sentencing Reform Take Place? Much of CJAC’s mission is to address incarceration before it happens, which is why we have reserved a permanent seat for a county judge (the individual judge rotates). The perspective and the buy-in from the figure tasked with sentencing helps us work effectively and understand that individual’s obligations (sentencing restrictions by state law, capacity, etc.)


Why Partner With the Business Community? We believe including the business community and Greater OKC Chamber is part of a comprehensive, long term solution to incarceration, which is why CJAC published a “Fair Chance Hiring Toolkit.”

Why is Our Detention Center Overcrowded? The jail was originally built for a smaller metro area population, and because it was unnecessarily made to be maximum security, it cannot easily meet the needs of our local justice system. Some major sentencing reforms (like SQ780) and drastically expanded diversion programs have helped keep more people from being booked into the detention center in recent years but the structural problems persist.


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