IN a recent television news report about the pros and cons of private prisons in Oklahoma, state Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said the state has decided it prefers a policy to “lock up bad guys and we want to put 'em away for a very long time.”
“If there's one thing that I think everyone is in agreement on,” said Jolley, who is chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, “it's that our prison populations are going to continue to grow.”
As a result, concerns such as those voiced by Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz are sure to remain. Glanz has gone to court seeking an order to have the Department of Corrections come and get all DOC prisoners who are being held at his jail while they await transfer to state prisons.
The Tulsa World reported that the request by Glanz came on the 122nd consecutive day that the jail's population had exceeded its capacity of 1,714 inmates. More than 150 of those were sent there by the DOC, which ships inmates (presently, about 1,800 of them) to county jails because there isn't enough space available in the prison system.
Space is lacking in the prison system because of the policies Jolley alluded to — policies that have helped the prison population grow from 11,000 to roughly 26,000 in the past 25 years, and left Oklahoma with the nation's No. 1 incarceration rate for females and a top-five incarceration rate overall.
They are policies that through the years have expanded the list of crimes requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. These 85 percent laws have been a contributor to the overall growth of the prison population. The trend lines anticipate only continued growth in the years ahead.
Efforts to bend those lines in the other direction have been mostly unsuccessful. Policymakers prefer to attack the problem from the back end instead of the front end. Oklahoma does use some alternative sentencing tools such as drug courts, which help keep low-risk offenders out of prison and thus ease the physical and fiscal stress on the corrections system. But broader efforts at corrections reform have been rebuffed because so many lawmakers fear being tagged as something other than “tough on crime.”
Many county jails are OK with housing state inmates because they get funding from the state for their efforts. In the case of Tulsa County, however, the reimbursement rate of $27 per day, per inmate, isn't even half what it costs to house them, Undersheriff Tim Albin says.
Even so, the county isn't looking to rid itself of all state inmates. Instead, it wants a requirement that DOC inmates are sent packing once they're judged and sentenced. The jail regularly houses state inmates “for weeks and months” after that has occurred, Glanz says.
DOC counters that moving them out right away isn't easy, in part because the prisons are near capacity but also because the available beds must match the security level of the incoming inmate. Albin says the sheriff's office is simply trying to keep the jail population manageable, to better serve the inmates and jail employees. “DOC overcrowding is not our problem,” he said.
Most at the Legislature feel the exact same way. Until this changes, which is highly unlikely any time soon, nothing else will.