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.
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