OCTOBER will bring a change at the top of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. This doesn't mean change is on the way for the DOC.
Corrections Director Justin Jones is resigning effective Oct. 1, after eight years in the job and 36 with the agency. Jones, 57, said it was “just time to turn the page and move on to another chapter in my life.” The most recent chapter, which saw him get crossways with the governor's office, has been difficult and surely played a part in his decision.
In April, Gov. Mary Fallin questioned why Jones was asking for $6.4 million in supplemental funding to help the agency make it through the fiscal year when DOC had an “undisclosed” $22 million in three revolving funds. Jones insisted that all three funds were listed in his budget every year. They were used to fill budget gaps and put out other fires that invariably popped up. He withdrew his request for the supplemental appropriation, but the damage was done.
The Oklahoman later learned that for the past two years, DOC had underreported the amount of money held in two of the revolving accounts. Fallin said she wasn't comfortable providing any additional funding to the agency until the issues were resolved. She meant it: The Legislature's appropriation to DOC this year was the same as the previous year. Fallin's concerns about the way DOC presented its finances were shared by legislative leaders, who call the shots on agency funding. “That's a major problem,” said Steve Burrage, former state auditor who now serves on the state board of corrections.
Philosophy was another problem for Jones. He wasn't a fan of expanding, as the Legislature has done through the years, the list of crimes that require offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence before they can be considered for parole. Such mandatory minimum sentences affect the ever-growing inmate census. His opposition to private prisons placed him squarely at odds with some powerful members of the Legislature. So too did his occasional calls for reform efforts to reduce the prison population.
If Oklahoma wants to remain among the national leaders in the male incarceration rate, and No. 1 in the number of females behind bars, “then the master plan ... should indicate how you're going to fund it,” Jones told The Oklahoman's editorial board in 2009. “If you don't want to do that, then let's start looking at systemic changes in the way we fundamentally administer public safety, because other states have been very successful about it.”
These views don't square with a Legislature that prefers a tough-on-crime approach to corrections. Sentencing reform has been a nonstarter for years. A bill signed in 2012 that was designed to save the DOC money, reduce recidivism rates and help local law enforcement has been only tepidly embraced. There appear to be no real advocates at the Capitol for doing things differently in this arena.
Jones' departure isn't a surprise, given the events of this spring. His successor is sure to be someone with whom Fallin is more comfortable. This person will be asked to manage a system that's bursting with prisoners who are housed in aging facilities and guarded by underpaid and outnumbered officers. It's one of the most difficult jobs in state government, with no real prospects of that tag changing any time soon.