Guest blog (Justin Jones): DOC budget cuts and offender growth are affecting public, employee and offender safety

Justin Jones, the author of this blog post, is Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections with 34 years of correctional experience.

Like many other state agencies, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) has been confronted with severe budget reductions over the past two years.  The agency’s budget for the current fiscal year, FY ’11, has been reduced by $41 million compared to FY ’09.  Meanwhile, Oklahoma experienced a net offender growth of 721 inmates for FY 2010, which was unfunded.  Even prior to these cuts, DOC had one of the lowest daily costs of incarceration in the nation. With less than one percent of the Department’s budget allocated for treatment programs, these reductions have had dramatic effects on our ability to prepare our offenders for success when they return to the community.

An array of measures have been implemented to address budget cuts while staying focused on maintaining core mission quality toward public, employee and offender safety. With over 53 percent of the Department’s total budget in payroll and the remainder in food, utilities, clothing and medical care, the only way to respond to budget shortfalls without placing the department back under federal court supervision has been to reduce staffing costs. A voluntary retirement buyout (VOBO) has been offered on three occasions, with over 400 employees accepting.  A reduction in force (RIF) was enacted on certain positions. A hiring freeze has been in effect. Furloughs have been in effect since July 1 totaling 23 days for all employees over the course of FY ‘11.  Private prisons and halfway house contract rates were reduced.  All correctional facilities and units have taken 22 percent reductions in operating expenses.  Offender and family visitations have been reduced by 50 percent as a result of staff reductions.  All sex offender programs and treatment programs at minimum security facilities were eliminated.  Over 60 other cuts to services, programs and operating budgets were enacted.

With these budget cutting measures, the department is now at its lowest staffing since 1995, even though we have grown by over 8,000 offenders for this same period. It has now become common operating practice to have an officer-to-offender ratio on certain shifts of over 160 to one. Staffing is now below 70 percent for authorized total correctional officer staff and at 71 percent for all other positions. Probation and parole caseloads are increasing, resulting in officers having  less time to work with offenders in the community on the factors that led to their criminal behavior .  With these staff reductions, safety concerns increase and any additional mandated cuts would require immediate statutory changes to reduce prison populations and provide the department authority to refuse prison receptions when prison capacity has not been funded.  Future budget reductions will also result in higher recidivism rates.  Since voluntary buy-outs have been depleted, the Department would have to implement further layoffs.   This would render facility security, sex offender registration and all forms of offender supervision and accountability at best…fragile. It would certainly compromise our core mission of public safety.

Unlike other state agencies, DOC has neither the authority to control the number of offenders we receive nor the number of offenders  we discharge.  In fact, prison populations only increase two ways – through receptions and length of prison sentence – and the state is experiencing an increase in both areas.  Even though we are one of the most economical correctional agencies in the nation, this trend has to be funded.  The legislatively mandated MGT audit projected that the state can expect continued net offender growth for the next decade if there are no significant changes to our criminal justice system.   This projected growth is unsustainable.   The ability of the agency to continue to meet its mission is in jeopardy without changes to the state’s criminal justice system.

For additional discussion of the DOC budget squeeze, see this column by Tulsa World editorial writer Julie Delcour.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Blatt helped found OK Policy in 2008 and became the organization's Executive Director in 2010. David previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers. He lives in Tulsa with his wife, Patty Hipsher, a special education teacher in Broken Arrow, and their son, Noah.

11 thoughts on “Guest blog (Justin Jones): DOC budget cuts and offender growth are affecting public, employee and offender safety

  1. I am sure these ideals would take Legislation approval, but I hope they are help:

    Maybe it would be feasible to allow some employees to provide detailed work schedules and work from home.

    Another ideal may be for short term offenders to be on a house arrest program instead of going to prison. The Judges could consider offenders with a low risk, non violent offenses and stable housing.

  2. Shetina, there are a myriad of pre-incarceration programs that are in place to help rehabilitate offenders before they go to prison, even for ‘short term’ offenders. There are also a number of such as: GPS, and halfway house programs that are used as part of a plan to enable rehabilitation back into society.

    The problem lies in the fact that we have been getting “tougher on crime” and lighter in the pocket book. The addition of multiple 85% crimes that have come through the legislature has made it so that we are simply filling prisons up faster than can be handled.

    As for working from home. Unfortunately, most staff members that could possibly work from home, would be unable to do to the need to keep legal documents in the workplace. There are also very few positions that require no offender interaction, and I’d really like to hear someone arguing for transporting an offender to a case manager’s house for an interview. Not going to happen.

  3. Interesting responses.

    One thing I have noticed that is being done in the Fortune 500 companies now is called (R)esults (O)riented (W)ork (E)nvironment. From the statistical data I have reviewed, this is a great tool to use, especially considering how our younger workforce stays tuned in to the Internet almost 24/7 now. Corrections has to change with the times. Where once it was a perception that your work would hire you, work you to death, then dump you when you were no longer of use…now employees are demanding and getting in most instances…better treatment. Work places are learning to rewire their thoughts from demanding that you be at work at your desk from 8-5 with an hour for lunch with no exception…to understanding the real financial loss of losing tenured staff because they are taking care of not only their children, but also their parents. By not being flexible enough with our staff, we are losing money in a variety of ways. For instance, you have a person who has been with the agency for 15 years as an officer. Now he needs to use flex time for FMLA due to taking care of his elderly parent who has Altzheimers. Currently, we make them decide, work or family…and that is not right. You can replace your job, but not your loved ones.

    The ROWE DOES WORK AND IS COST EFFECTIVE. Probation and Parole Officers CAN work from home if they have access to the various programs such as OMS, OBS, etc. This can cut the cost of rent for office space, for office supplies, for the cost of utilities and other officer related purchases. ROWE is also a good incentive and rewards staff who meet their weekly goals/quotas. Those who do not meet their assigned goals can be mentored, sanctioned if needed, or returned to regular office work status. They do not need to see or use their clients files all the time and if they need to do a violation or supplemental report it can be done at the office one day a week. If DOC does not look at alternatives like this, we stand to have a revolving door of new staff and a reduction of tenured staff. With them goes years of experience and knowledge…and also brings more cost for the hiring process, the training process and the first year of probation status for getting used to doing the work. A LOT of money is being lost because of us not being able to be more progressive/pro-active.

  4. P.S. ROWE studies have shown that staff is happier at work, thus willing to stay, even if the pay isn’t so great. They have also shown a reduction in absenteeism and a good increase in productivity.

  5. I have been working for DOC for 2 years. I think some things that would help is to stop shift rotation. I think if you were able to choose your own shift I think you would end up with the right amount of officers on each shift. With out having to hire anymore. I think that might end the doubles so you would save mayjor money there. I think you have officers that would perfer certain shifts because it is easier and more feasable for there lifes. I mean at least think about it, maybe send out a letter asking officers which shifts they would work if they got to choose. See what you end up with. I mean it wont hurt and maybe it would work out.

  6. Linda, like any other addiction issue, the person has to really want to make the change in himself. Being sent to a program doesn’t guarantee the person will complete the program…and in most instances…a lot of them go right back to what they were doing before getting caught. It is a vicious cycle of abuse and the judges get fed up with seeing the person coming in and out of their court room. Substance abuse programs are the cure, because no one is really addressing the symptoms. Why are these people turning to drugs, alcohol, food, sex or shopping? A lot of it has to do with coping skills for stress management…and in my opinion…this should be taught in school K-12.

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