Oklahoma Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh resigned abruptly last week, leaving political responsibility for the state’s overcrowded, underfunded prison system squarely in the lap of Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Allbaugh deserves the state’s thanks for 3½ years of work in a largely thankless task. Without enough money or people, working with antiquated facilities and under constant pressure from a misaligned justice system that constantly pushes more and more inmates through the prison system’s front doors, Allbaugh kept everything under control and even made some progress.
He reorganized corrections management to keep the focus on core missions, consolidated politically sensitive but inefficient work centers, cajoled the Legislature into funding long overdue raises for guards and engineered the creative financing for acquisition of a 2,590-bed medium-security facility near Sayre, which was full from Day 1 but gave the state a little more breathing room.
Because of long-term legislative neglect, the state is walking a tightrope over a variety of potentially deadly and expensive prison disasters, some that we don’t even want to think about. We could fall at any moment. Allbaugh could be a prickly guy, but he gets credit for effectively maintaining the state’s equilibrium for as long as he did. He got the job done, sometimes by force of will alone.
Now the onus goes to Stitt.
Stitt inherited Allbaugh, a strong-willed leader who gave the governor some political buffer for the department’s challenges. Whoever takes the hot seat will be the governor’s appointee, and therefore the governor’s political responsibility.
Stitt volunteered for the responsibility not just by running for governor but by insisting that the Legislature give him the authority to hire and fire the corrections director. The details of why Allbaugh left remain a bit clouded, but there’s no debate about who the state will look to now to keep the prison system open, constitutional and secure.
Perhaps the added burden will give Stitt the push he needs to force more meaningful criminal justice reforms through the Legislature, despite the opposition of vested interests and political opportunists.
That’s the only long-term solution to the state’s incarceration addiction, short of bankrupting the state with prison costs.