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Alternative sentencing programs show growing success in Oklahoma

Oklahoma prosecutors today may choose from a variety of nontraditional sentencing options ranging from drug court assignments to mental health and anger management counseling.
BY RON J. JACKSON Jr. Published: March 27, 2011

Comanche County District Attorney Fred C. Smith spoke to a civic group recently about the ever-increasing role new technology and alternative sentencing will play in the criminal courts.

Fifteen years ago, that talk probably never would have happened.

“I'm a prosecutor,” Smith said. “That's what I've been trained to do — prosecute. But district attorneys are being asked to do more and more ... now, we're also being asked to be social workers.”

Prosecutors today may choose from a variety of nontraditional sentencing options ranging from drug court assignments to mental health and anger management counseling.

GPS monitoring devices for sex offenders, alcohol monitoring bracelets and drug patches are some of the newer probation tools.

Alternative sentencing is a necessity borne from prison overcrowding and shrinking budgets, officials say.

In Oklahoma — a conservative state that prides itself on tough talk and swift justice — being tough on crime comes with a price.

“What's the answer?” Jerry Massie, state Department of Corrections spokesman, asked rhetorically. “Build more prisons.”

There is no money for prison construction and agencies are bracing for more budget cuts.

The 4,100 corrections employees are required to take one furlough day a month — saving the state $600,000, Massie noted. Soon, employees might be required to take two additional days off a month without pay.

“The problem is, we're asking for a $9 million supplemental this year,” Massie said. “Eleven of the last 13 years, we've had to ask the Legislature for supplemental money.”

Oklahoma's prison population has swelled by nearly 9,000 inmates in that time.

Today, that population is some 26,600, including 1,300 held in county jails. Those totals account for 96.5 percent of the department's bed capacity.

State minimum- and medium-security prisons are running about 98.2 percent and 99.1 percent full, respectively.

“I think everyone would agree something has to be done,” said Gene Christian, executive director of the state Office of Juvenile Affairs.

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