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Julie DelCour: Can our prison population be reduced rationally?

Jul 12, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

When the noose tightened on California’s state finances a few years back, panicked officials turned to prisons for a quick fix. To save money, they opened the prison doors too wide and flooded communities with thousands of inmates.
Oklahoma’s financial straits are not as dire as those in California — yet — but fiscal pain is relative. Cut to the bone, state services, particularly education, are hurting here, and revenues continue to slump. The Department of Corrections, with 27,000 inmates, 12 percent over its official capacity, is a voracious consumer of the state budget, one of the 10 most expensive agencies in state government.

When the noose tightened on California’s state finances a few years back, panicked officials turned to prisons for a quick fix. To save money, they opened the prison doors too wide and flooded communities with thousands of inmates.

Oklahoma’s financial straits are not as dire as those in California — yet — but fiscal pain is relative. Cut to the bone, state services, particularly education, are hurting here, and revenues continue to slump. The Department of Corrections, with 27,000 inmates, 12 percent over its official capacity, is a voracious consumer of the state budget, one of the 10 most expensive agencies in state government.

Penny-wise, pound foolish

Lawmakers don’t like spending one penny more than they must on corrections even when revenues are healthy, much less when they’re in the tank. Yet, they’ve failed repeatedly to follow other states’ examples of how to safely reduce a prison population — the ultimate cost-cutter.

If the state gets backed farther into a corner at budget time next year, the hasty early-release of a lot of prisoners could become the go-to solution. The danger is that it would be done California-style, very unsystematically.

At this point, that scenario is only idle speculation, but lawmakers have seldom been rational about crime and punishment, hence our high incarceration rate. In the past, observers of the state corrections system were bitterly disappointed when the state had a chance to start lowering the prison population safely and systematically, and missed it.

Had officials adhered to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — passed by the Legislature in 2012 under House Speaker Kris Steele, and then subsequently ignored when House leadership changed — Oklahoma would be well on its way toward a more reasonable approach to reducing incarceration through alternatives.

More like Texas

Oklahoma would be more like Texas and numerous other states that adopted strategies similar to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative years ago and are closing prisons, saving millions by diverting nonviolent inmates to alternatives to incarceration and not seeing crime rates rise.

The Legislature is starting to see the error of its ways. Last session it passed several pieces of smart-on-crime legislation that will bring more rationality to sentencing and punishment. It will take time, however, for most of the bills to make a noticeable difference

Unfortunately, two bills that went by the wayside involved early-release credits for inmates whose convictions are serious enough that offenders cannot be considered for parole until they’ve served 85 percent of their sentence.

The Tulsa World endorsed those bills, which would have allowed early-release credits to accrue during the length of the sentence. Under current DOC rules, inmates are not eligible to earn credits until they reach the 85 percent mark. This diminishes offenders’ incentive to behave and to complete education and self-improvement programs

Last week, Gov. Mary Fallin asked the Oklahoma Board of Corrections to do essentially the same thing, loosen its good-time credit policies governing most prisoners serving time for the 22 offenses classified as 85 percent crimes.

The proposed policy change would affect about 6,000 inmates and save DOC $2.3 million over the next 18 months.

“It is clear that the current one-size-fits-all policy of the Department of Corrections does not correctly reflect the law of Oklahoma,” Fallin’s memo to the board states.

Allowing prisoners to receive early-release credits not only will help lower the prison population, but provide inmates with an incentive to abide by prison rules and policies, said Steven Mullins, the governor’s general counsel.

“It’s perceived to be an advantage for correctional officers and creates a safer work environment for them.”

Prosecutors speak

Fallin’s proposal is getting some support from the District Attorney’s Council, no slouches when it comes to law and order.

In a memo addressing the state’s incarceration problems and possible solutions, the council wrote that 85 percent should mean 85 percent.

“When the 85 percent law passed, we understood it to mean offenders eligible to earn credits to allow release after serving 85 percent of their sentences. That is what we began telling victims of violent crime.

“We later learned offenders were serving 92 percent of their sentences on the manner in which credits were being applied,” the memo says. “While all other offenders may not earn release at 85 percent, we believe the law intended to allow that possibility.”

Allowing those prisoners to accrue early-release credits prior to serving 85 percent of their time was one of the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. A change in rules would not give inmates something for nothing; they must do their part by following rules and completing programs.

Among the crimes for which 85 percent of the sentence must be served are murder, manslaughter, arson and rape. (Lawmakers have added offenses to the list, which has contributed to the growing prison population).

Even if the rule is changed, inmates could not be released until they have served 85 percent of their sentence.

The board should seriously consider the governor’s request, and the Legislature should get back on track with full implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The governor has given signals that she is receptive to that idea.

Let’s borrow a play from Texas’ playbook for reducing our prison population, not California’s

 

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