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Hamilton: Next corrections director faces criminal justice crisis

Dec 11, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

Why would anyone want to serve as Oklahoma’s corrections director? The state’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded – at 112 percent of capacity – and woefully underfunded – nearly a third of authorized staff positions are unfilled. Lawmakers tout criminal justice reform, yet do little about it, clinging instead to a politically pleasing lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality. And when a system set up for failure fails, whose head rolls? The director, of course.This is not a defense of Robert Patton, who resigned recently after less than two tumultuous years that will be remembered best for a series of execution problems. Rather, it is an indictment of the state’s elected leadership that knows it has a serious problem, yet refuses to invest the money and embrace the strategies necessary to create a truer system of correction.

By: Arnold Hamilton Guest Columnist     December 10, 2015         0

Why would anyone want to serve as Oklahoma’s corrections director?

The state’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded – at 112 percent of capacity – and woefully underfunded – nearly a third of authorized staff positions are unfilled.

Lawmakers tout criminal justice reform, yet do little about it, clinging instead to a politically pleasing lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality.

And when a system set up for failure fails, whose head rolls? The director, of course.

This is not a defense of Robert Patton, who resigned recently after less than two tumultuous years that will be remembered best for a series of execution problems.

Rather, it is an indictment of the state’s elected leadership that knows it has a serious problem, yet refuses to invest the money and embrace the strategies necessary to create a truer system of correction.

Oklahoma taxpayers have not been served well by years of starvation budgets that shoved the state’s prisons to the brink – one violent incident away from a possible federal takeover.

Many of the facilities are archaic and decaying. Most correctional officers work 60 hours weekly because of short staffing. Starting salaries rank in the bottom five nationally. Mental health services and rehabilitation opportunities for inmates are often spotty.

What’s a director to do? So many holes in the dike, so few tools to fix them. Success is measured chiefly by an ability to avoid negative headlines.

There was a glimmer of hope in 2012 that Gov. Mary Fallin and state lawmakers were coming to grips with the reality that only a strategic, innovative and, yes, well-funded plan could solve the state’s corrections crisis long-term.

The governor signed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative aimed at bolstering public safety and easing prison crowding, in part through programs designed to improve post-incarceration supervision and reduce recidivism.

Unfortunately, the program was never funded – a victim of cash-strapped state budgets resulting from shortsighted, but politically pleasing income tax cuts and corporate tax incentives.

Not long after, in 2013, the state’s corrections director, Justin Jones, was forced out – mostly because he insisted on speaking truthfully, in public, about the corrections crisis while the state’s elected elite sang in unison from an all-is-well hymnal.

In came Patton, but Fallin and Co. – and Oklahoma – ended up with more headaches, especially from bungled executions that yielded a public relations black eye internationally and a grand jury investigation that undoubtedly figured into the departures of both Patton and the Oklahoma State Penitentiary warden, Anita Trammell.

There’s talk again of real criminal justice reform but, frankly, it’s hard to imagine anything more than window-dressing coming out of the 2016 legislative session. It will be an election year, after all. The only thing that scares most Oklahoma lawmakers more than voting for a tax increase is being labeled “soft on crime.”

So what is Oklahoma to do? It needs a new, top-flight, creative, energetic corrections director, but offers little incentive – just an underfunded, overcrowded and understaffed agency chained to laws that keep the prison population soaring.

Is it a dead-end job? Jones now is director of the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau, which at least allows him to continue the “smart on crime” efforts that got him into trouble with state leaders. Patton leaves his $160,000-a-year job here to work for the private prison company GEO Group as deputy warden at a Kingman, Arizona, prison – an obvious step down professionally, but a step way up when seeking to reduce headaches and stress.

Perhaps Oklahoma’s elected leaders can convince director prospects that they’re serious this time about criminal justice reform. Perhaps they really are. Perhaps Oklahoma finally will get “smart on crime.”

Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net.

Read more: http://journalrecord.com/2015/12/10/hamilton-next-corrections-director-faces-criminal-justice-crisis-opinion/#ixzz3u4QWgupU