TOM McKeon has an idea. What if the state of Oklahoma invested in some of the men and women it locks up, in order to save the corrections system money in the long run and give those inmates a shot at a life after prison? The Legislature ought to lend McKeon an ear.
McKeon is president of Tulsa Community College, which since 2007 has been sending teachers to Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy to teach courses in such fields as hotel/restaurant management, landscape design and business and enterprise development. To date, 338 men and women (the females are housed at Turley Correctional Center north of Tulsa) have participated in the Second Chance program; 286 certificates of achievement or associate degrees have been awarded. Of the 128 who have been released from prison, only 6 percent of the male participants have wound up back behind bars. None of the female participants has returned.
“To me it makes more sense to provide these young men and women some tools ... so they don't go back,” McKeon said during a meeting this week with The Oklahoman's editorial board. “To me, that's economic development.”
And it makes fiscal sense. Under this program, inmates can get 30 days shaved off their sentences after completing six credit hours. That's a savings to the Department of Corrections of about $2,000 per month. Those who obtain an associate degree get their sentence reduced by 100 days. For an agency that's already strapped, every little bit of savings helps.
But this is also the morally correct thing to do. Oklahoma has earned its reputation as a tough-on-crime state, with an incarceration rate that's among the highest in the nation. In a recent newspaper op-ed, Sean Wallace, head of the group that represents outnumbered and underpaid correctional officers, noted that Oklahoma has seen a 444 percent growth in the prison population in the past 30 years. The inmate count in the last fiscal year grew by about 700 inmates, “nearly a full prison's worth.”
The Legislature through the years has been quick to pass laws that mandate minimum lengths of stay in prison for certain offenses, while rejecting most efforts to try to do things differently. We thought the tide might be turning somewhat in 2012 with passage of a reform law that sought front-end investment in exchange for back-end savings, but the follow-through has been uninspired.
The price tag associated with that bill was $3.7 million in the first year, $3.5 million this year. By comparison, McKeon would like to see lawmakers spend $600,000 annually to go toward education programs in prisons, including the TCC program (at TCC, that amount would allow for about 160 students per year to take part, double the current number). Second Chance initially was funded with federal dollars that flowed through the Department of Corrections. Those federal training/education funds were cut a few years ago. Current funding flows from private sources.
The DOC was given a standstill budget for this fiscal year, partly due to concerns by the governor and some lawmakers over the way the agency used and reported three revolving funds. In what is shaping up as a tight budget for the state in the next fiscal year, the prospect of getting additional funds directed to the DOC may be a long shot.
Compared with a $6 billion budget, the amount McKeon seeks is insignificant. The program is not. It merits support.