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Tulsa World Editorial: Good prison reform efforts on the table

Mar 24, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

A package of criminal justice reforms winding its way through the Legislature could bring some long overdue reason to how Oklahoma handles lawbreakers. Oklahoma incarcerates more offenders per capita than nearly any other state and without a commensurate increase in public safety. More than half of inmates are behind bars for nonviolent offenses, costing taxpayers nearly $20,000 per inmate annually, far more than the state spends per pupil in public schools. Most nonviolent lawbreakers could be held accountable for their crimes in a less severe and far less expensive manner with better results, including a lower recidivism rate. Limited and costly prison space should be reserved for the dangerous who put the community at risk.

A package of criminal justice reforms winding its way through the Legislature could bring some long overdue reason to how Oklahoma handles lawbreakers.

Oklahoma incarcerates more offenders per capita than nearly any other state and without a commensurate increase in public safety. More than half of inmates are behind bars for nonviolent offenses, costing taxpayers nearly $20,000 per inmate annually, far more than the state spends per pupil in public schools. Most nonviolent lawbreakers could be held accountable for their crimes in a less severe and far less expensive manner with better results, including a lower recidivism rate. Limited and costly prison space should be reserved for the dangerous who put the community at risk.

None of the reforms proposed would bring down the high incarceration rate or reduce prison numbers immediately, but each is an important step in restructuring a broken system that is overcrowded, understaffed and counterproductive — a dysfunctional gulag that consumes a disproportionate share of scarce tax dollars.

The seven measures, passed in the House with bipartisan support, range from expanding work opportunities for ex-offenders to how inmates are paroled, monitored and rehabilitated.

Here are the bills:

•House Bill 2168: Modifies employment licensing requirements to expand work opportunities for former offenders.

•HB 2179: Modifies provisional driver’s license and commercial driver’s license requirements to increase opportunities for former offenders to seek gainful employment.

•HB 2187: Authorizes the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to use electronic monitoring of parolees.

•HB 1548: Allows for judicial review of a sentence modification after an offender completes a special drug program.

•HB 1518: Allows judges flexibility in modifying sentences for certain offenders.

•HB 1630: Streamlines the inmate transfer process from county jail to the state prison system.

•HB 1117: Strengthens the parole supervision process, and expands the prison system’s ability to incentivize good behavior. Inmates serving lengthy sentences still would be required to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being considered for parole but they could begin accruing good-behavior credit sooner.

The proposals are a positive step in a year when lawmakers have $611 million less to appropriate than last year. Is there more that could be done to fix the system, reduce the prison population, keep the community and prison employees safer and promote better outcomes for offenders? There is.

The smart-on-crime Justice Reinvestment Initiative remains on the table, awaiting implementation. Already in state law, the initiative would do a better job of sorting out reformable criminals for diversion programs and emphasize less-expensive supervision on the streets instead of behind bars.

In addition to urging the Senate to embrace the House proposals and any naysayers who falsely claim the measures are soft on crime, we urge everyone at the Capitol to renew the JRI effort, which has proven in other states that prison costs can be drastically reduced while crime rates go down.