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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A recent Tulsa World survey also showed strong public support for finding alternatives to incarceration for many nonviolent female offenders and for doing more to help the children they leave behind.

Sen. Brian Bingman, the new Senate president pro tem, said he supports “anything that we can do to keep nonviolent criminals out of prisons.”

Bingman, R-Sapulpa, also said he wants to learn more about the governor's role in the parole process before deciding whether that requirement should continue.

Gov.-elect Mary Fallin said she would consider legislation removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders, adding that for heinous crimes, the governor would have to remain involved.

Fallin also has said that expanding drug and mental health courts would help relieve prison congestion.

Behind the problems

Prison officials have maintained for decades the system is overcrowded and underfunded, in large part because offender growth is not funded until after the fact and often is not annualized.

The latest unfunded Legislative mandate is the “85 Percent Rule,” which requires persons convicted of certain crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before they can be considered for parole.

Signed into law in 2000, the list of those crimes has grown from 11 to 24 offenses, which Jones said ensures the average prison stay will steadily increase. The number of “85 Percent” offenders already has risen from 53 in December of 2000 to 5,086 in December of 2009.

“Prison population grows in three ways: the number of people coming in, the length of sentences and the number of people coming out,” Jones said. “In all three categories, we're striking out.”

As a result, the prison system is operating at near capacity and the backlog of stated prisoners awaiting transport from county jails averages about 1,400 on a day.

“When the recession hit, a lot of my peers did something we've been doing since the 1970s; they started double-celling,” Jones said. “We were already there, so we didn't have that option.”

At the same time, Corrections has had to cut 21.7 percent of its operating budget. Cuts include 46 percent of all prison treatment and training programs; staffing levels reduced to 71 percent of authorized capacity, the lowest level since 1995; and 23 furlough days scheduled for employees.

The department also eliminated its training academy and its employee education incentive program, closed probation offices and a community corrections center, and reduced per-diem rates to for-profit prisons and halfway houses and community sentencing funding to counties.

Even the Corrections' cattle herd got cut by a thousand head.

“With the way the international economy is now, it's cheaper to buy boxed beef in quarters and take it to our meatpacking plant and divide it up,” Jones said.

Its shift from ranching to gardening has helped the department reduce its meal rate for prisoners to $2.22 a day for three meals, down about a quarter.

But Jones is questioning how low you can go, particularly with the safety risks that staffing cutbacks pose. “The staff is absolutely amazing, but at the same time you know they are getting tired,” he said.

With furlough days set to rise in coming months, Jones said he may end visitations at state-operated facilities if the Legislature doesn't approve at least part of a $34 million supplemental request.

“It would be a last resort and would depend on whether the staffing pattern continues to drop,” Jones said of ending prison visitations.

Last week, the staffing level for correctional officers was at 68 percent.

Is for-profit an option?

In the past decade, Oklahoma has turned to for-profit prisons as a cure-all, but Jones said those options are more limited today.

California, Indiana and some federal agencies pay up to $62 a day for higher-security bed space, compared to Oklahoma's fixed $38 rate.

Jones has outsourced pharmaceutical care and inmate telephone operations and is considering outsourcing prison canteens.

The solutions that would have the most noteworthy impact lie in the details of the audit, particularly when it comes to nonviolent drug offenders who have never been in treatment before coming to prison.

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