Oklahoma lawmakers seek to strike budget balance for prisons

This year marks the 12th year in the past 13 that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has sought emergency funds from the state Legislature. Since 1995, the prison population has grown from 17,983 inmates to 26. The department estimates it now needs more than $592 million to operate.
BY TOM LINDLEY Modified: December 9, 2010 at 10:18 am •  Published: December 5, 2010
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In 1995, long rows of bunk beds replaced game tables, ironing boards and folding chairs in the day rooms where prisoners inside the Eddie Warrior Women's Correctional Center in Taft would sit when someone with a message of hope would come to speak.

“I remember when we put in those bunks and were quoted as saying it would be temporary,” Justin Jones, Oklahoma Department of Corrections director, said. “Here we are in 2010, and they are still there, except now they are stacked two high. In the Department of Corrections, temporary is at least 15 years.”

This year also marks the 12th year in the past 13 that Corrections has sought emergency funds from the state Legislature. Since 1995, the prison population has grown from 17,983 inmates to 26,720 and state appropriations have increased from $188 million to more than $461 million, despite the department having trimmed $76 million from its budget in the past two years.

The department estimates it now needs more than $592 million to operate.

With the Legislature's bill-filing deadline for 2011 less than a week away, newly elected Speaker of the House Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, is pushing for a series of short-term steps to reduce the budget strain, including:

Enhancing community sentencing programs and mandatory supervision.

Limiting the governor's role in the parole process for nonviolent crimes.

Defining qualifications for parole board members.

Reviewing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Effectively utilizing the re-entry program, which involves GPS monitoring.

Steele estimated that removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders alone could save more than $30 million annually.

Steele also said he will seek support for long-term strategies, including entering into an 18-month partnership with the Council of State Governments for Justice Reinvestment. The program analyzes criminal justice trends to help officials understand what factors are driving the growth in jail and prison populations and develop policy options to control spending and save tax dollars.

Similar measures were proposed three years ago when lawmakers spent more than $800,000 on a prison system audit. While 62 administrative recommendations were put in place, the Legislature so far has failed to take action on any of the biggest potential cost-savers.

“I think public safety is a top priority in our state and as a result, historically, Oklahoma's answer to that has been incarceration,” Steele said. “It's been kind of a one-size-fits-all approach. Lawmakers have been reluctant to dig in ... nobody wants to be perceived to be soft on crime.”

In addition, supporters of reforms in the criminal justice system that has helped make Oklahoma a state of incarceration — it leads the nation in locking up women on a per-capita basis and is consistently in the top five for incarcerating men — say it has helped reduce Oklahoma's crime rate and improved public safety.

“I can tell you from a fiscal standpoint ... (and) from a human resource standpoint we are going to have to do something different,” Steele said.

Steele said three numbers stand out in the research: 68 percent of female offenders aren't a danger to public safety; the state prison system is operating at 99 percent capacity, which means there is little room for more violent offenders; and 70 percent of children with a parent in prison wind up being incarcerated at some point in their lives.



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