AT some point, it's reasonable to assume, the situation inside one of Oklahoma's packed prisons will turn very ugly, and someone other than another inmate will get hurt or killed. Only then will we hear declarations that something ought to be done about a problem that's been festering for years.
Until that happens, though, it will most assuredly be business as usual for the Legislature. That business includes dismissing any suggestion of sentencing reform designed to ease prison crowding, and instead pursuing legislation that locks more offenders away for longer amounts of time.
This includes working to weaken existing reform efforts. An example is a move to expand the state's list of violent crimes in order to limit the number of paroles that can be granted exclusively by the state Pardon and Parole Board. Voters in November endorsed the idea of removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders, something studies have shown would save money and ease crowding.
Also included is a lukewarm response to a 2012 bill designed to cut corrections costs and reinvest some of the savings in the system. Without buy-in from a number of agencies and officials involved in the process, the proposed changes won't be made and the savings won't be realized.
The bill was promoted by former House Speaker Kris Steele, a Republican who demonstrated that exploring new ways to deal with criminal justice didn't require forfeiting your conservative credentials. Looking for ways to reduce the number of Oklahoma females who wind up in prison — a practice that takes an awful toll on families, particularly children — or the length of those stays, as Steele did, should be the goal of any conservative. So too should studying ways to better use taxpayer dollars.
Oklahoma has so many men and women behind bars that roughly 1,700 state inmates are being held in county jails, waiting to be transferred to state prisons. Many counties don't mind this practice and indeed have come to depend on the state money they get as part of the deal. But one county has sued the Department of Corrections, saying the per diem rate is too low.
If Oklahoma's prisons weren't constantly at or near capacity, county jails wouldn't be needed as frequently for spillover. But the number of state prisoners being held in county jails has grown by 300 percent in the past decade, due in part to laws that require inmates to serve longer stretches of time before they can be considered for parole.
DOC Director Justin Jones reported last month that about 800 more prisoners were housed in October than in the same month of 2011. Thus his request for $6.4 million in supplemental funding, to pay for additional use of private prisons and halfway houses.
The DOC's check from the Legislature for this fiscal year totaled $463.7 million. Yet Jones in 2013 wants $12.2 million more from the Legislature, to pay for 5 percent pay raises. This is because the swollen prison population is being overseen by fewer numbers of corrections officers — the DOC budget includes only enough funding to fill 69 percent of the authorized positions, and not even all those are filled. Prison guards are routinely outnumbered by a sizable margin, but starting pay is just $11.83 per hour.
In October, Republican state Rep. Jeff Hickman called prison staffing levels “life-and-death situations now.” He added: “Someone is going to die if we don't make some changes and make them sooner rather than later.”
Given Oklahoma's track record, our money's on the changes coming later.