A new audit of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections identifies several ways DOC officials could make better use of limited funds. Its broader message is a warning about the growing problems created by legislative actions — and inaction.
“Our recommendations can go only so far toward addressing the serious and urgent correctional issues facing our state,” wrote state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones. “Proponents of ‘tough-on-crime’ and policymakers advocating rigorous sentencing laws must act responsibly and commit sufficient financial resources to fund the infrastructure, operations and specialized programs needed to accommodate the resultant expansion of a demographically demanding inmate population, or find ways in which to be smart on crime, keeping in mind the ever increasing cost to Oklahoma taxpayers.”
The Legislature continues to impose harsher sentences for many crimes, yet lawmakers have failed to provide the funding necessary to incarcerate those criminals for longer periods of time.
The audit notes that state appropriations for the prison system decreased from $506.6 million in the 2008 budget year to $463.7 million in 2013, even as the number of offenders in DOC custody increased. The amount appropriated per offender fell from $20,735 to $18,412, a drop of 11.2 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the 2013 budget-year appropriation was $84 million less than the 2008 figure.
The combination of harsher sentencing and reduced funding has spillover effects. From 2008 to 2013, the audit found, the number of DOC inmates housed in county jails (awaiting eventual transfer to a state prison) increased by 36.92 percent.
At the same time, the number of inmates in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s increased significantly for each age group. This has contributed to rising medical expenses at state prisons even as funding falls.
Lawmakers also continue to reject or water down efforts promoting alternative sentencing programs that reduce demand for prison cells. The audit cites the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), enacted in 2012, as one notable reform effort. Among other things, that initiative called for greater use of electronic monitoring of offenders outside prison and mandatory supervision upon release from prison. The plan would have eventually diverted up to 2,100 offenders away from state prisons thanks to prevention and alternative sentencing.
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