A legislative committee working on public safety budgets met last week with the head of the prison system, Oklahoma's top Highway Patrol officer and the state's chief medical examiner. All three agency chiefs need help and they need it now.
Justin Jones, director of the Department of Corrections, vowed not to do it but said his agency is close to triple-celling inmates or bunking them in corridors. The state's prisons are at 99.2 percent of capacity. A record 26,267 inmates are on the books. All available private prison beds under contract are taken, Jones said.
This is what happens when lawmakers continue to add to the list of crimes that require an inmate to serve 85 percent of his sentence before he can be considered for parole. That list started small many years ago, but has expanded since then.
In addition to more inmates spending more time behind bars, Oklahoma has historically slowed the flow of exiting inmates by requiring the governor to approve every parole recommendation. Voters in November said they want the parole board to be able to have the final say for nonviolent offenders, which will ease the backlog at the back end of the prison system. But this change is being fought tooth and nail by prosecutors.
Jones asked for $6.4 million to make it to the end of this fiscal year. He wants a $66 million bump in his budget for next fiscal year — some of which would go toward higher pay for prison guards. But he didn't simply come with his hand out. He suggested the state contract with one of two private prisons in Oklahoma. Each can house 2,100 inmates; placing inmates there would cost $27 million and the state already pays out $22 million to the counties for their help.
Lawmakers approved a bill last year that, if fully implemented, will save money and ease crowding. But more work is needed, including a serious look at sentencing reform. Otherwise the price tag for corrections will only continue to grow.
Like Jones, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson wants raises for his men and women. Thompson said 14 other law enforcement agencies in the state offer better pay than what troopers get. Meanwhile OHP staffing is at a 22-year low, leaving troopers “to do more and more every day.” Turnover is a growing concern.
Last year the Legislature funded an academy for cadets for the first time in three years. This needs to continue. Thompson's request for an additional $7 million next year merits serious consideration.
So too does Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Eric Pfeifer's warning that without a new building in Oklahoma City, the medical examiner's office won't regain its national accreditation. Additional pathologists are also needed, but the biggest issue is the cramped and outdated building, where last year a cooler broke down and cadavers had to be stored temporarily in refrigeration trucks.
A bond issue is the perfect vehicle to pay for construction of a new building, but conservative lawmakers have rejected that idea over misguided concerns about adding to the state's debt. Many fail to grasp, or simply refuse to acknowledge, the difference between responsible investment in infrastructure, which a bond issue would be, and irresponsible deficit spending such as that seen in Washington.
All three of these agency requests deserve serious deliberation driven by pragmatism, not ideology.