REPUBLICANS who control the Legislature should resist the urge to dismiss as political theater the pleadings of a prison officer who spoke last week at a news conference called by House Democrats.
What Joseph Harp Correctional Center Lt. Cecil Dooley had to say wasn't partisan in nature. Dooley simply laid out what life is like for him and his colleagues at Harp, a medium-security prison in Lexington.
“Some are working four double shifts per week,” he said. “And even when it isn't mandatory, we have officers that feel that they're being threatened if they don't stay. Of course, officers enjoyed the overtime in their paychecks for a while, but now they just want to go home to their families and they can't get there.”
Corrections officers are taxed like this because there aren't enough of them in the prison system. The Department of Corrections is authorized for 5,800 officer positions. Only 62 percent of those are filled. This results in one or two officers regularly having to watch large numbers of inmates during a shift, which is a dangerous formula.
Dooley joined others in asking that Gov. Mary Fallin and Republican leaders spike their plans for an income tax cut and instead restore funding for the DOC (and the Department of Public Safety) to 2008 levels. The corrections agency is asking for additional money to provide raises for veteran officers and a bump in starting pay for new hires. That pay now stands at $11.83 per hour.
More guards are needed, to be sure, and the DOC is right to request additional funding. But also needed is a true willingness to look at new ways to handle criminals. Oklahoma uses drug courts and a handful of other diversion programs. But conservative policymakers have been reluctant to do much more, apparently concerned about protecting their tough-on-crime credentials.
So we have a prison population that stands at about 26,000 — a 30 percent increase over the past 15 years. This growth has been helped by more laws requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their time before they can be considered for parole. But the number of nonviolent drug offenders sent to prison grows each year, too.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute last week called for steps that would benefit the prison system and prisoners. One is to actively pursue previous reforms such as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which the Legislature approved last year but needs more funding and interagency buy-in and cooperation to have any chance at making a difference.
OK Policy suggested changes that would allow those convicted of lesser crimes to keep their driver's licenses and join professions that aren't related to their crimes. These are sensible ideas aimed at helping those who have messed up to start over again. OK Policy's call for lawmakers to look anew at sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders also merits consideration. Studies have shown that using increased monitoring after a short stay behind bars is more effective for many of those offenders than a long stretch locked up.
But lawmakers' unease with corrections continues. An example noted by OK Policy was a bill this session that sought to reduce to five years (from 10 years) the maximum sentence for some marijuana possession cases. A House committee approved it unanimously. Then, “It was not allowed a hearing on the House floor.”
At some point, this resistance has to change.