At the end of the day, Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh says the situation is “shameful,” which just about sums it up.
Oklahoma sends too many people to prison, more than it can afford to hold.
No other place in the world locks up a higher percentage of its people, and it’s not making us any safer, just a whole lot poorer.
We got a taste of how much poorer last week when the state corrections board authorized $116.5 million in bonds to deal with antiquated facilities.
The board also authorized Allbaugh to start consideration of another, potentially much larger bond issue to expand the state prison system.
Last year, the corrections department estimated the cost of two new medium-security prisons at more than $800 million and that’s just the beginning of the state’s backlogged prison costs.
Two ineluctable facts of life are driving state prison costs — and increasingly are dominating the state’s budget priorities.
• The prison system is more than full. As of Friday, the state had 27,252 people in state and private prisons. The prisons involved — some of which are in such pitiful condition that they invite federal court intervention — have a legitimate capacity of 26,863, a number that is only possible because of the use of temporary beds. Nearly another 1,000 convicts are sitting in county jails waiting their turn to get jammed through the front door.
• The situation is getting worse. The state’s half-way efforts at criminal justice reform have slowed the growth of prison numbers, but have not reversed it. The state’s prison population is expected to grow by 2,367 inmates by 2026, corrections officials estimate.
Overcrowded and understaffed, Oklahoma’s prison system is terribly expensive and will get more so every year that we fail to reform the entire criminal justice system. Nibbling around the edges isn’t enough.
Every penny we spend on locking up people is money we can’t spend on addiction treatment, job training, education, health care and mental health care — programs that reduce crime and keep people out of prison. The bond issue authorized last week was unavoidable, but it will drain money from higher state priorities for decades.
Allbaugh is right. Shameful is the only word for it.