State prisons deal with long-term overcrowding
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 09, 2012
12/09/12 at 7:29 AM
Read the report on Justice Reinvestment from the Council of State Governments.
Despite several justice system reforms passed in recent years, Oklahoma's prisons continue to fill near capacity - though it's a problem state officials knew was coming.
"What we're experiencing is what they projected in these studies," said Justin Jones, director of the Department of Corrections.
A report released by the Council of State Governments earlier this year projected that high rates of violent crime and tapped-out public safety resources would continue to drive Oklahoma's prison growth and costs.
Jones recently reported that Oklahoma's prisons were nearly full again, with only seven available beds for female offenders statewide, as of this week.
"We were always near 98 to 96 percent, so any small growth puts us toward the limit," Jones said.
That growth - almost 800 more prisoners in October 2012 compared to the same month for 2011 - is why the agency is seeking nearly $6.4 million in supplemental appropriation to pay for increased use of private prison beds and halfway houses, among other increased expenses.
When it was released this past January, the Council of State Governments' report said if all its recommendations were implemented in Oklahoma, the state prison system would grow by 2 percent, instead of 9 percent, as it would if none of the recommended changes were made.
"By averting growth in the state prison population between fiscal year 2013 and 2021, the policy framework avoids an estimated $249 million in additional spending that would otherwise be needed to accommodate prison population growth," the report states.
Since the 2011 legislative session, Oklahoma has actively been working on a series of prison reforms, including attempts to streamline the parole process for nonviolent offenders.
But it will be several years before Oklahoma sees any real fiscal savings from those reforms, Jones said.
Parole reforms were one of the principle changes suggested by a 2010 study by the Colorado-based Northpointe Institute for Public Management, looking at ways to improve efficiency in Oklahoma's prison system.
The Northpointe study found that about 11 percent of Oklahoma inmates up for parole get approved for release, which contributes to the state's crowded prisons and costs taxpayers an average of $80 million per year.
A law passed in early 2011 aimed to give the Pardon and Parole Board final say in cases of nonviolent offenders, but changes were halted when Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued an opinion that such a revision required a voter-approved amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution.
Last month, voters approved State Question 762, altering the constitution to remove the governor from the parole process for nonviolent crimes. Gov. Mary Fallin still retains final say in the paroles of those convicted of violent crimes.
But the Pardon and Parole Board continues to seek public input on how to implement the changes and won't begin operating under the new rules until January or February at the earliest.
As part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative signed into law earlier this year, Oklahoma will also increase supervision of felons released from prison, require mental health assessments for people facing felony convictions and add alternative punishment options for those who violate certain terms of probation.
But because Oklahoma has nearly 1,700 offenders in county jails awaiting transportation to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections when beds become available, many officials have voiced concerns that some of the provisions of the new law could create further bottlenecks.
"It's really not fair to the counties, but it's our only avenue - and we simply cannot triple-cell inmates," Jones said.
The new law requires mental health assessments prior to sentencing and substance abuse treatment for certain offenders prior to release, which some county sheriffs worry could worsen the backup.
And DOC continues to struggle to hire and retain staff to keep up with its prison population, Jones said.
"That's one of our No. 1 priorities this legislative session: We have an $11.83 per hour starting salary," he said. "We have got to get that competitive again."
Often, they'll have 30 openings and only 10 applicants - and competing oil-field jobs near prisons can offer salaries that start at $15 per hour more, he said.
Original Print Headline: Crowding remains problem at prisons
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Justin Jones: The Corrections Department director said there were only seven available beds for female offenders statewide.