The word out of a legislative interim study group is that the state should transfer 1,000 offenders to private prisons to relieve stress on the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Two facilities, one in Watonga owned by GEO Group and the other in Hinton, owned by Corrections Corporation of America, just happen to be sitting empty.

The DOC, the state's innkeeper, is at capacity. With no room at the inn, the state might have little choice but to house its overflow crowd in private prisons, which it does to some extent already.

How convenient. And, how short-sighted, considering that the state had its chance and missed it to reduce its prison population in a rational, safe manner. All it had to do was what Texas and several other states have done with success: Follow the conservative strategy spelled out in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative passed nearly three years ago.

Many of the state lawmakers now supporting a shift to greater private prison use, voted to adopt that initiative, which has been shown to cut costs, reduce recidivism and improve inmate outcomes, all without jeopardizing public safety.

Even with its high per-capita incarceration rate, Oklahoma still suffers a violent crime rate of more than 10 percent.

What changed and caused Oklahoma to virtually abandon the initiative? In a word, leadership. Former House Speaker Kris Steele, who spearheaded prison reform, left via term limits, and T.W. Shannon took over. Gov. Mary Fallin replaced Gov. Brad Henry who supported using alternatives to incarceration for some nonviolent offenders as called for in JRI.

Shannon and Fallin support private prisons. They see private prisons as economic generators run by the private sector.

Earlier this year, the initiative lost another champion, DOC Director Justin Jones, a 35-year DOC veteran and nationally recognized expert on corrections. Jones "retired" in disgust after realizing a move was afoot to steer DOC toward private prisons, and that the Legislature intended to starve the reform initiative.

The problem with private prisons is that to make money they nust stay full. Don't feed the beast and it dies. That's what happened to the two vacant prisons after other states pulled inmates out and took them home.

Private prisons also don't like trouble-makers, special-needs inmates or maximum-security bad boys. Oklahoma has a lot of inmates in those categories. This leaves the lower-risk inmates, many of whom could be sent back to the community to serve their sentences in settings that cost less than the nearly $20,000-a-year price tag it costs to keep inmates in state facilities or the private prisons already under contract.

The DOC budget, already one of the fastest-growing parts of state spending, is bound to grow even faster as it becomes more reliant on private prisons.

It's already galling what the state spends to house an inmate — a figure nearly twice the cost of educating a child in public school.

JRI dealt with reducing the number of lower-level, lower-risk nonviolent offenders and reserving prison space for violent offenders. The initiative strategy actually has led to the closing of several prisons in other states with no increase in the violent crime rate.

That's unlikely here. Oklahoma chose to abandon prison reform.

So, the state will continue, with the backing of the governor and the House speaker, to follow the same ineffective strategies used for decades.

At exorbitant expense, it will send — and keep — more nonviolent inmates behind bars.

Nothing changes except that inmates increasingly might end up behind private prison bars.

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