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new jail in Oklahoma County
The Oklahoma County Detention Center is located at 201 N. Shartel Ave. in Oklahoma City. (Pablo Angulo)

Oklahoma County is one step closer to having a new jail after the Criminal Justice Advisory Council (CJAC) accepted a recommendation from its facilities subcommittee Thursday to build one.

What to do about Oklahoma County’s troubled jail — which a recent report called “disturbing” — has been an issue almost since the facility opened, and this approval might mark a move toward substantial action.

There are still plenty of steps in the process, however. The recommendation will now move to the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority — called the jail trust — and then to the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners. If both of those bodies approve the plan, it will require a vote of the public to approve a substantial portion of the proposed funding, which would come from the extension of general obligation bonds.

“A lot of excellent work has been invested in this effort,” CJAC Chairman Clay Bennett said at Thursday’s meeting. “Lay work. Professional work. People with experience in the space who care about this space. I’m very pleased to hear the recommendation today. It’s our hope this will go to county commissioners and, with their support, we can begin the efforts of the campaign and organize exactly how we are going to line out the funding for the work, and engage in the work itself.”

Available funding could top $450 million

The proposed new jail would be paid for with a combination of funds. Money from the American Rescue Act could total $154 million. General obligation bonds, if voters approve them, could provide up to $110 million. A further $200 million could be raised through revenue anticipation and lease-purchase bonds.

According to officials, residents would see no tax increase.

“We have the opportunity to go out to the voters with general obligation limited tax bonds, just as the county has done before for Tinker and other purposes,” public finance attorney Leslie Batchelor told the council. “Without raising anyone’s taxes, we can continue that level of revenue.”

All told, if all those funding streams were tapped, as much as $462 million could be available for construction, though current estimates put the cost of a new jail at about $297 million, according to information provided by CJAC and FSB, an architectural firm hired to study ways to fix the county’s troubled jail.

Batchelor said building a new jail makes more financial sense than continuing to fund the current structure.

“The pure, cold, hard facts on the financing are: The smartest thing to do is to replace the facility instead of throwing good money after bad,” she said.

Size and location to be determined

Architects from FSB presented three options for a new jail’s location.

The first would be on the current site of the jail in downtown Oklahoma City. That option would require the structure to be six stories tall, owing to the limited footprint available in that part of downtown. It would also require the county to acquire adjacent land to allow room for future growth.

The second option would call for a 45-acre campus with a single-story jail. It would be built on a new site within 10 minutes of downtown Oklahoma City.

The third option would also put the jail on a new site within 10 minutes of downtown, but it would split the jail into two levels on a 22-acre campus.

FSB also recommended building a jail that could accommodate up to 1,800 detainees. In that plan, 1,400 of those beds would be for the general population and another 400 for detainees with medical and mental health concerns. Some criminal justice reform activists have said they want to see a smaller jail. But others insist the county needs to plan for increased population growth over the coming decades.

The current jail opened in 1991 was designed to house 1,200 inmates, but by adding more beds to each cell, its capacity has risen to more than 2,000, hitting a record high population of more than 2,700 detainees in 2004.

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Time is already a factor, organizers say

Under the current plant outlined by CJAC and FSB, much of 2022 would be devoted to continued study into a variety of aspects of the project including site selection and the level of security at the facility. A design phase would begin in 2023 and the bond extension would be decided by county voters that same year. Construction would begin in 2024 and would likely be completed in 2026, with the facility opening no later than 2027.

But while that may seem far in the future, time is already in short supply, FSB’s John Semtner said.

“If we as a county want to use those funding mechanisms, the first one rolls off in 2023, so we need to get ahead of that with a bond vote,” Semtner said Thursday. “The second one rolls off later in 2024. There is an ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) deadline where we need to identify how the county is going to use those funds and all of those need to be used by the end of 2026. The funding mechanisms have deadlines, and also the MAPS 4 facilities are starting to get designed and into that process of site selection, and if we want to partner with them in any way time is becoming critical.”

Related: Reports on ‘disturbing’ Oklahoma County Jail contradict improvement claims

Reports on ‘disturbing’ Oklahoma County Jail contradict improvement claims