Led the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce’s criminal justice reform task force and helped address the state’s high incarceration rates and the challenges facing inmates at the Oklahoma County jail.
• Mental Health in Prisons
• Legislative Reform
• Prison Administration Reform
• Responsible for helping pass Oklahoma State Questions 780 and 781
• Led the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce’s criminal justice reform task force to produce a lengthy study/recommendations for state-wide reform
"It’s not an emergency. It’s desperation. The objective is to reform the system, fix the jail, and, most importantly, take care of our brothers and sisters and the citizens of Oklahoma in a much better way. ”
At first glance, Clay Bennett might not seem like the typical justice reform crusader. He isn’t a grassroots activist, an elected official, or a faith leader.
Instead, he is a successful businessman—the chairman of the Oklahoma City Thunder, president of the private investment firm Dorchester Capital—a dedicated family man, and a lifelong Oklahoman. Like any proud Sooner, Clay is committed to seeing his home state grow and flourish.
That commitment has driven Clay Bennett to the forefront of overhauling the state’s criminal justice system. Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the nation, topped only by Louisiana, and the highest rate of women’s incarceration. State prisons are overcrowded, currently 19 percent over capacity. Data has shown that more than three-quarters of Oklahomans know someone who is incarcerated in a local jail, state prison, or other kind of correctional facility.
Things are particularly bad at the Oklahoma County jail—so bad, in fact, that in 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the jail for civil rights abuses. What they found was appalling: infested kitchens, insufficient showers and clothing, and pervasive violence. In 2009, they gave Oklahoma County five years to make improvements.
While nearly all of the mandated changes were made by the deadline, problems persisted. In 2016, almost a dozen people died while being held at the Oklahoma County jail, five of whom had committed suicide.
Oklahoma County incarcerates people at a higher rate than any of the similarly sized counties in the region, and the challenges inmates face when entering the facility reflect some of the same challenges facing the population. Eighty percent of those entering the jail arrive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. At least twelve percent struggle with major mental health issues.
What the state needed, according to public defender Bob Ravitz, was “a buy-in from the private sector” to make a concerted push for change.
Enter Clay Bennett—an outsider with the private-sector heft and the public-centered heart to get the job done. Bennett led the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce’s criminal justice reform task force, formed in December 2015 to address these problems at the Oklahoma County jail. Comprised of leaders from every sector, the group partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice to conduct a study on the Oklahoma County jail. The Vera Institute came back with some staggering statistics, which Bennett and his team used as a primer to craft recommendations on how to improve the state’s justice system. The recommendations ranged from developing alternatives to incarceration for those dealing with mental illness to reforming bail and streamlining the state’s court system so cases can move more quickly.
Bennett has also lent his voice to the broader justice reform movement as part of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform—a group that pushed specifically for the passage of state questions 780 and 781. These ballot initiatives were designed to reduce the prison population, save money and invest in public safety for Oklahoma. When the questions passed in November 2016, it was a step forward for the entire state and a testament to public support for a sensible approach to justice.
Clay Bennett has dedicated his voice and time to building public engagement in justice reform by making the case to his fellow Oklahomans.
“We have accomplished many great things in our community when we work together toward a common goal,” he wrote in The Oklahoman. “We have high expectations for our systems of government, and I believe we each want to make certain the criminal justice system treats everyone who touches it with fairness and respect, and that as a community we work to lift up those who need care or treatment. Reaching these goals will require dedication and investment of time and treasure, but the reward of a safer and stronger community is worth the effort and the expense.”