Joe Allbaugh resigned, but his critique of Oklahoma’s justice system remains true (Capitol Update)

Surprisingly, Joe Allbaugh resigned abruptly as Department of Corrections (DOC) director last week. Judging from the comments he made I’d say, put simply, that he was “fed up.” Allbaugh took on the task of restoring and improving DOC about 3 1/2 years ago when the previous director got into hot water after a botched administration of the death penalty. The job appears to have been a battle every day. He’s worn a path between DOC and the Capitol warning of the possibility of tragedy if the state doesn’t do something about our decrepit, overcrowded, understaffed and underpaid corrections system. He’s called for criminal justice reform to incarcerate fewer people and/or for more money to upgrade and build new facilities for those who keep entering the system.

I would guess that what Joe said when he quit was about all he’s going to say. From what I know of him, he speaks bluntly, and then that’s it. Given his background and stature, he likely doesn’t feel the need to argue the point. But reading between the lines, it doesn’t take much analysis to figure out why he was fed up. About his DOC staff, the “hardest-working people” he’s worked with in his life, he said, “they are the subject matter experts.” He told the board, they deserve your respect, they deserve your attention, and they deserve their knowledge to be heard. After the meeting, asked for comment, he said, “They (the Board of Corrections) have a different set of ideas than I do.”

Joe’s abrupt departure may be the first visible result of Oklahoma’s new form of government. Joe had invested over three years in learning and observing Corrections for himself, working with DOC staff and working with and educating members of the Board of Corrections. Suddenly, there is a new governor and what the governor called a “hand-picked” new board. According to the governor, “Here is what happened … I want Oklahomans to know this. They elected me to do things differently, so we are bringing new people into these boards and we are bringing new thoughts into the management of these state agencies.”

Joe’s ideas were fewer prisoners and more money to guard and rehabilitate the ones we have, but despite his advice the ideas never materialized. It’s too bad he won’t be here to make the case again now that there’s more money. The new ideas of the new board may have a different wrapping, but they likely won’t end up being much different. After a career that includes serving four governors (Bellmon, Walters, Bush, and Perry), a U.S. Senator (Bellmon), a U.S. President (Campaign Director and FEMA director for President Bush during 911), and a wide range of successful business interests, Joe has options. That probably made adapting to “new thoughts” at DOC comparatively unattractive.


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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