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On corrections, Oklahoma lawmakers can't have it both ways

Nov 2, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

THE Oklahoma Department of Corrections budget request for the next fiscal year prompts the question: Will state policymakers ever seriously entertain policies that might help this state spend less on corrections?

If the answer is no — and there’s been little evidence to date that lawmakers are fond of prison reform — then those same lawmakers must be willing to break open the checkbook. Current trends can’t be addressed without additional money.

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: October 29, 2014
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THE Oklahoma Department of Corrections budget request for the next fiscal year prompts the question: Will state policymakers ever seriously entertain policies that might help this state spend less on corrections?

If the answer is no — and there’s been little evidence to date that lawmakers are fond of prison reform — then those same lawmakers must be willing to break open the checkbook. Current trends can’t be addressed without additional money.

The DOC last week said it will ask the Legislature for about $85 million more next fiscal year, with a good chunk of that ($26 million) to be used to help deal with an inmate population that continues to grow. For the first time, the offender population in Oklahoma has topped 28,000.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. In its 2007 study of Oklahoma’s prison system, MGT of America estimated that the prison census, which at that time stood at about 25,400, would eclipse 28,000 in fiscal year 2012. The auditors were off, but only by a little. They also estimated the population would approach 29,000 in FY 2016. That may wind up being off, too, but the state clearly is headed in that direction.

The Legislature spent more than $800,000 for that study and then ignored many of the recommendations and observations, including this one: Given the projected prison population growth at that time, the DOC needed to either expand its capacity by about 4,000 beds “or implement other program alternatives that will slow the projected growth.”

DOC’s responsibility is to house the offenders brought into the system. The work of coming up with program alternatives falls to policymakers, who’ve been cool to most reform efforts. Most lawmakers are OK with drug courts, which have grown in number across the state during the past several years and have given offenders a chance to straighten up instead of being sent to prison. Beyond that, though, lawmakers generally prefer policies that lock people away.

These men and women can find plenty of examples that bolster their stance. Alton Nolen, charged with beheading an employee at a Moore food processing plant in September, had been released from custody in 2013 after spending just two years in prison for three felonies that carried combined sentences of 10 years. Good-conduct credits and other policies took time off his sentence.

This summer, a man who had spent more than 20 years in prison allegedly raped and beat his live-in girlfriend and another woman in Oklahoma City. The second woman died from her injuries. The man had been released from prison several months earlier.

Cases like these frustrate prosecutors and the public alike. They make politicians’ tough-on-crime pitches a winner on the election stump. Yet as Oklahoma’s prison population has grown through the years, and as lawmakers have added more statutes to keep people locked up longer, the state’s violent crime rate has decreased only slightly.

In his audit of the DOC, state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones said lawmakers need to either “act responsibly and commit sufficient financial resources” to fund the prison system’s operations and programs, “or find ways in which to be smart on crime, keeping in mind the ever increasing cost to Oklahoma taxpayers.”

Simply put: Lawmakers can’t have it both ways. They need to remember this early next year, when they’re weighing the DOC’s budget request.

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