After criminal justice advocates’ hopes of real reform were dashed at the end of the 2017 session, many were hopeful that 2018 would be the year Oklahoma got serious about criminal justice reform. With the governor and legislative leaders expressing their support and key obstacles out of the way, things appeared to be lining up for the proposals put forth last year by Gov. Fallin’s Justice Reform Task Force (JRTF). Although those bills now appear to be advancing towards final passage, they have been weakened to overcome the opposition of District Attorneys. Though the bills are expected to avert most, but not all, prison growth over the next 10 years, the Department of Corrections (DOC) will still require one new prison.
Simultaneously, legislative leaders have also signaled in recent weeks that they could issue a bond to build new prisons at a cost of up to $800 million. While DOC is in desperate need of space to reduce the dangerous overcrowding in its facilities, it is disappointing that this is being considered when there are hugely significant and relatively cheap solutions to reduce the number of people in Oklahoma’s prisons.
While even the weakened task force measures represent a significant accomplishment, it’s far from sufficient to confront the deep problems in our justice system. If new prison facilities are approved, they must be tightly paired with closing old ones. The worst possible outcome would be to increase our capacity to incarcerate more Oklahomans while settling for weakened reforms with no next steps.
Justice reform has been overrun by the budget debate
It’s understandable that the debate around the task force bills — one of Gov. Fallin’s main priorities this year — has gotten little attention as the years-long struggle to raise revenues and provide a teacher pay raise comes to a head.
That’s probably a big reason why Gov. Fallin and the legislative leaders who have carried the task force proposals recently announced a deal with District Attorneys to amend the bills and move them toward final passage. With so many intractable fights on the budget, they were eager to take one major issue off the table, even if it meant compromising the effectiveness of the reforms.
Without reform, the prison population is expected to grow by about 7,200 inmates by 2026. If the Legislature passes the reforms in their agreed-upon form, the prison population is expected to grow by 2,300. Prisons will still grow from their already-unsustainable levels.
By contrast, if the Legislature passed the task force bills in their original form, prisons would hold about 2,000 fewer people by 2026 than they do today, saving the state nearly $2 billion. That kind of reduction could allow the Department of Corrections to close a prison or two and free up a considerable amount of money to invest in rehabilitation programs, increased pay for employees, and upgrades to facilities that are in very bad shape.
Oklahoma needs new prisons, but we must close old ones, too
The state Department of Corrections is in dire straits. Director Joe Allbaugh is not exaggerating when he says that one prison’s water tower is held together by a mop handle and a toothbrush; some facilities are over a century old, and many were not designed to be used as prisons. Nearly 2 in 5 of the agency’s employees qualify for food stamps, many haven’t had a raise in 12 years, and staffing levels are far below what is safe for inmates and officers alike.
Speaking to legislators earlier this year, Allbaugh said, “I can save a ton of money on old, dilapidated buildings that we’re holding together by building two new facilities … We need this relief.” Because newer facilities require fewer people to operate and have lower maintenance costs, building new prisons may be a smart thing for lawmakers to fund — if it allows DOC to close outdated facilities. These long-term savings are why Allbaugh moved to lease a shuttered private prison in 2016 and move inmates from community work centers that were smaller, older, and more expensive to operate.
But given the Legislature’s recent actions, the willingness to consider new facilities is troubling. After failing to pass reforms to reduce the prison population last year, and accepting less-than-ideal revisions to the reforms on the table, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned that building new prisons will simply increase our capacity to put more people behind bars and remove the urgency to stem the flow of prisoners. If lawmakers do put together a bond issue proposal to build new prisons, it must also require that they be used to replace existing capacity, not add to it. If they don’t, they can expect that our incarceration rate — already the second highest in the country — will continue to grow unabated.
The revised bills are a needed first step, but the journey is just starting
The contrast between the justice reform experiences in Oklahoma and Texas could not be starker. Facing the need for half a billion dollars in new funding to expand its prisons in 2007, the Texas legislature instead invested in substance abuse, mental health, and evidence-based supervision. Since implementing those reforms, crime and incarceration have fallen simultaneously in the Lone Star State, and eight prisons closed within six years.
Oklahoma’s first attempt to replicate Texas’ success fell flat in 2012, and now the do-over offered by the Justice Reform Task Force proposals has been hobbled. If legislators choose to expand the state’s incarceration capacity without ambitious efforts to reduce the flow of prisoners into DOC, Oklahoma will only continue its outdated, counterproductive commitment to mass incarceration.