A look at corrections-focused interim studies (Capitol Update)

It’s always interesting to see the interim study requests made by legislators. The studies are a good opportunity for legislators to learn more and educate others about issues they care about. The House requests that caught my eye were by Rep. J.J. Humphrey, R-Lane, Chair of the Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. Humphrey was elected to the House after a 20-year career with the Department of Corrections. He also was owner/operator of a private company that contracted drug court supervision and private probation and offered drug testing for the courts and private companies. In addition, Humphrey was the administrator of the Atoka/Coal County drug court for six years. 

Humphrey requested IS 21-038 to examine areas where he believes change is critically needed in order to improve the efficiency of the Department of Corrections. Included are:

  1. Officer Shortages- The inmate to officer ratio needs improvement. Overtime can be beneficial for those needing the wages, but the fatigue and burnout rate are high. In recent years turnover rates have been as high as 40% with DOC corrections officers.
  2. Oversized Administration- Humphries wants to examine the number of administrators needed to run the Department of Corrections at every level and the proportion of appropriations being spent on administration.
  3. Employee Morale- According to Humphrey, with high turnover rates, it is imperative that the dedicated employees that remain with DOC be treated with respect. Open communication and support are vital.
  4. Progressive discipline- Humphries believes employees are tired and overworked because of understaffing which can lead to mistakes. There need to be warnings, and solutions, before desperately needed employees are terminated.
  5. Department Changes- Humphries wants to examine what departments can be consolidated or need to be created.

Humphrey has warned earlier about the possibility of violence in the institutions and litigation. 

Humphrey also requested IS 21-033 addressing community corrections. The study would determine how to change probation and parole in light of State Question 780 that changed simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The goal is to put drug court probation and community corrections under judicial control. Currently the District Attorney controls drug courts as the gatekeeper, and community corrections is a shared process. Several bills through the years have attempted to wrest control of drug court from the DAs, but prosecutors managed to kill all of them. 

Finally, Humphrey requested IS 21-036, which is a study to assess the feasibility of implementing a comprehensive statewide computer database system that links all criminal justice, law enforcement, court, and corrections agencies. The goal with a singular system is that upon initial arrest, contact or assessment, and input into the database, all records and information on an individual will remain intact and available throughout their entire time within the system regardless of controlling agency. I have to admit the libertarian streak in me wonders if we want to live in a state that is that efficient. Anyway, this seems like a long-range, expensive goal. 

A strength of the legislative process is that citizens bring with them to the legislature their experience and ideas for improvement in state government. Humphrey has valuable experience in corrections. He’s right to be worried about a dangerous personnel and funding situation in DOC.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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