Oklahoma’s overcrowded Tulsa County jail has stopped accepting municipal inmates, thanks to a spike in the number of people detained for not paying fines or court fees. Jail spaces are also filled by immigration detainees, placed in local facilities around the country for a fee. The Tulsa World reports:
“At this point in time we are at a crisis level. We’ve never seen these levels,” Clark said. “When you start thinking about medical and food services and clothing, … we are doing emergency orders for equipment.” […]
An increasing number of people being held for failure to pay fines and court costs has added to the crowding, he said. Crime sweeps by police in the 61st Street and Peoria Avenue area and by immigration officials in other areas have also contributed, he added.
A World analysis in November found that the number of bookings on warrants for failure to pay was up about 12 percent since 2009.
While the county says it plans to turn away municipal-only arrestees, it holds hundreds of prisoners for the federal government under lucrative contracts, jail records show.
The county receives $59 per day for each inmate it holds for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the U.S. Marshals Service.
Overcrowding is rampant in U.S. jails and prisons, which incarcerate far more of our own than any country in the world. Just this past month, an Oregon county sheriff says he was forced to release burglars from his jail thanks to a glut of federal immigration detainees filling his prison. And in Chicago, prosecutors have imposed a moratorium on felony prostitution charges to make room for other more violent criminals in the city’s overcrowded jails. California’s prison overcrowding was deemed unconstitutional in 2011.
Nationally, overcrowding is facilitated by harsh sentencing laws and the over-criminalization of nonviolent drug and other offenses. Recent reports have also brought to light the alarming trend of jailing people for their inability to pay fines, frequently referred to as “debtors’ prison.” Along with bail policies that keep those charged but not convicted of minor crimes in jail for almost a year, and private probation firms that have financial incentives to increase nonpayment penalties, these practices criminalize poverty and are arguably unconstitutional. Unsurprisingly, the number of people being jailed on this basis has increased since the economic downturn. In recent years, individuals in jail for failure to pay fines made up almost a third of the Tulsa County jail population. Also facilitating the overcrowding are federal immigration defendants, whose rising detention has contributed to the 790 percent spike in the federal prison population since 1980. Nationally, the federal government is housing immigration detainees in 312 state and local facilities.
A Tulsa World editorial notes that Oklahoma, like many U.S. jurisdictions “has a long history with overcrowded prisons largely due to a lack of alternatives for nonviolent offenders.” Now, the state’s local jails are also reaching that crisis level, operating at 114 percent of capacity. But local officials are addressing the emergency much sooner than California officials did; when California’s prisons were deemed unconstitutionally overcrowded in 2011, they were at almost 200 percent of capacity. Even now, with prisons at 145 percent of capacity, Gov. Jerry Brown has insisted that the prison emergency is “over,” in spite of numerous court findings to the contrary.