A legislative committee working on public safety budgets met last week with the head of the prison system, Oklahoma's top Highway Patrol officer and the state's chief medical examiner. All three agency chiefs need help and they need it now.
Justin Jones, director of the Department of Corrections, vowed not to do it but said his agency is close to triple-celling inmates or bunking them in corridors. The state's prisons are at 99.2 percent of capacity. A record 26,267 inmates are on the books. All available private prison beds under contract are taken, Jones said.
This is what happens when lawmakers continue to add to the list of crimes that require an inmate to serve 85 percent of his sentence before he can be considered for parole. That list started small many years ago, but has expanded since then.
In addition to more inmates spending more time behind bars, Oklahoma has historically slowed the flow of exiting inmates by requiring the governor to approve every parole recommendation. Voters in November said they want the parole board to be able to have the final say for nonviolent offenders, which will ease the backlog at the back end of the prison system. But this change is being fought tooth and nail by prosecutors.
Jones asked for $6.4 million to make it to the end of this fiscal year. He wants a $66 million bump in his budget for next fiscal year — some of which would go toward higher pay for prison guards. But he didn't simply come with his hand out. He suggested the state contract with one of two private prisons in Oklahoma. Each can house 2,100 inmates; placing inmates there would cost $27 million and the state already pays out $22 million to the counties for their help.
Lawmakers approved a bill last year that, if fully implemented, will save money and ease crowding. But more work is needed, including a serious look at sentencing reform. Otherwise the price tag for corrections will only continue to grow.