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Oklahoma DOC director encouraged by tenor of conversation

Jun 14, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

FOURTEEN months on the job as director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Robert Patton feels pretty good about things. That’s not to say the DOC doesn’t continue to face significant immediate and long-term challenges, because it does. But Patton says there is reason to be encouraged. In particular he points to the reception he and staff received from the Legislature this year. After DOC received a flat budget a year ago, lawmakers appropriated $14 million more for the fiscal year that begins July 1. And, they passed some bills sought by the agency, including a few that have the potential to ease the burden on the system in the coming years. “Corrections was on everybody’s mind during the session,” Patton told The Oklahoman’s editorial board. “Generally, the conversation was ‘We need to do something.’ … We’ve started the conversation and we’re going to continue the conversation.”

By The Oklahoman Editorial Board

FOURTEEN months on the job as director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Robert Patton feels pretty good about things. That’s not to say the DOC doesn’t continue to face significant immediate and long-term challenges, because it does. But Patton says there is reason to be encouraged.

In particular he points to the reception he and staff received from the Legislature this year. After DOC received a flat budget a year ago, lawmakers appropriated $14 million more for the fiscal year that begins July 1. And, they passed some bills sought by the agency, including a few that have the potential to ease the burden on the system in the coming years.

“Corrections was on everybody’s mind during the session,” Patton told The Oklahoman’s editorial board. “Generally, the conversation was ‘We need to do something.’ … We’ve started the conversation and we’re going to continue the conversation.”

Indeed that talk needs to continue, because for too many years, policymakers in Oklahoma have taken the approach that locking people away is the answer to criminal justice. This has produced a prison population that’s at 112 percent of capacity, with 27,500 men and women in DOC custody as of May 2015. That represents an increase of 1,200 over one year ago, with growth expected in the same range in the coming year.

Some relief may be on the way, however, as a result of bills such as the Justice Safety Valve Act. It allows judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenses if they believe imposing them would be an injustice to the defendant or aren’t necessary for public protection. These offenders can instead be diverted to mental health or drug abuse programs, which will save money and give offenders a better chance to change their ways.

Other criminal justice bills approved this session include a measure that doesn’t make life in prison without parole the only punishment for three-time drug offenders, and a bill that lets low-level drug offenders get out of prison once they’ve completed a drug offender work camp.

These represent progress. More is needed. Patton noted that he expects Oklahoma to continue to lead the nation in the number of women imprisoned, per capita. Oklahoma’s overall incarceration rate will remain among the highest in the country.

The state continues to imprison a disproportionate number of nonviolent offenders — people convicted of property crimes, drug-related offenses, etc. Whereas most states’ prisons have about 40 percent nonviolent offenders, Patton said Oklahoma’s has 54 percent. That should trouble any policymaker, although as Patton put it, “It’s not a DA problem, it’s not a judge problem, it’s not a Department of Corrections problem. It’s an Oklahoma problem.”

He’s alluding to the many substance abuse and mental health issues that play a role in criminal activity in Oklahoma. These underscore the need for additional investments by the state in mental health courts and drug courts, and other “smart on crime” initiatives.

Patton says he’s also trying to be “smart on corrections,” by doing such things as increasing the use of GPS monitoring and community corrections centers, and reworking the agency’s disciplinary system to ensure that inmates don’t lose earned-release credits for minor rules infractions.

Oklahoma “is headed down the right path,” Patton said, adding that he would love to be able to someday go to the Legislature and say he doesn’t need a budget increase. That will only happen if the current conversation continues, and if lawmakers decide to truly embrace corrections reform.