The state, always an oil producer, cashed in on the massive growth
of fracking operations that extracted hard-to-reach crude oil,
boosting tax revenues and easing fiscal constraints.
But the collapse in oil prices in 2014 contributed to a massive $1.3
billion budget deficit, bringing into focus the state's overcrowded
and costly corrections system.
The crisis is forging political consensus around legislation and
brightening prospects for ballot initiatives, experts say.
"Reform is desperately needed," said Joe Allbaugh, appointed as the
interim director of the Department of Corrections in January.
As revenues plummeted, the correctional system's $500 million in
annual costs continued to escalate, raising questions about the
effectiveness of the "tough on crime" stance the state has taken for
A conservative who previously served in the Bush Administration,
Allbaugh supports efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum prison
sentences and steer non-violent drug offenders into rehabilitation
programs instead of prison.
"The culture in Oklahoma has been to 'lock 'em up and throw away the
key,'" he said. "But sadly, when non-violent offenders and
first-time offenders come into the system, we do not have enough
correctional officers to protect them. These greenhorns are forced
to join a gang. It's a mess."
The state's tough-on-crime ethos has spurred the second-highest
overall incarceration rate in the country, with a prison system
running at 122 percent of capacity. That makes it the
third-most-overcrowded in the country, according to the DOC.
Oklahoma is the No. 1 jailer of women, according to Oklahomans for
Criminal Justice Reform.
"The budget challenges are creating a sense of urgency and unity
that we have not experienced in recent years," said Kris Steele, the
group's leader, who is also the former house speaker in Oklahoma's
For every dozen people in Oklahoma, at least one has a felony on his
or her record, according to the group. That can prove a barrier to
Even as the prison population has grown to about 28,000 people, the
DOC laid off prison guards to cut costs, putting the ratio of guards
to inmates at one to 11, versus the national average of one to five.
BILLS AND BALLOTS
Reform efforts received a boost this week when four bills backed by
Governor Mary Fallin passed a Senate committee.
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They include provisions that would eliminate mandatory minimum
sentencing for first and second felony drug possession and
increasing the felony property crime threshold from $500 to $1,000.
One bill would give discretion to district attorneys to file
felonies as misdemeanors.
The state will have to dig deep to find ways to fund the already
stretched system. Lawmakers last month agreed to tap the rainy day
fund to direct $27.5 million to corrections as part of an emergency
Reforms like those being considered were previously non-starters, in
part because of opposition from the influential District Attorneys
Council, said Adam Luck, Oklahoma state director for Right on Crime,
a conservative group pushing for criminal justice reform.
That changed this year because members of the council were brought
in early in the process to help shape the legislation, he said. That
paved the way for business groups and ultimately lawmakers to
support the bills.
The next front for reform efforts will be at the ballot box. Voters
will decide in November whether to support initiatives to reclassify
low-level drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors and direct money
to drug rehabilitation and mental health programs.
Steele's Criminal Justice Reform group also is behind a November
Despite the new consensus around reform, there is disagreement about
whether the reforms will produce savings, and how quickly.
After the bills passed out of committee this week, Oklahoma state
Senator Greg Treat said incarcerating fewer Oklahomans will save
"millions of dollars each year."
But the DOC's Allbaugh is skeptical. He said it will take years
before reforms will have a meaningful impact on the system's costs.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Daniel Bases and Dan Grebler)
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