Reducing Oklahoma’s excessive reliance on incarceration (Capitol Update)

At the beginning of the 2018 legislative session, former Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) Director Joe Allbaugh was asking for over $1.5 billion in appropriations for the Department of Corrections for FY 2019. More than $800 million of the request was for two new medium security prisons, and the remaining $700 million was for salary increases, immediate facility needs, inmate health care, and a host of other department needs. The actual appropriation for FY 2019 was $517 million.

At the Board of Corrections meeting where board members voted on the $1.5 billion request, Allbaugh said, “It sounds like a lot of money because it is a lot of money. The days of bailing wire and pliers are over. We have to fund this agency properly. This budget represents exactly what our needs are.” The top priority listed in the request document was an additional $10.1 million for employee salary increases. Allbaugh said the department had a difficult time attracting and retaining employees in large part because of the low salary correctional officers receive, which was $12.78 per hour beginning pay. Correctional officers who work directly with inmates have since received a $2 per hour raise. 

A year later in 2019, Allbaugh resigned. The legislature had given the governor power to appoint new Corrections Board members and Gov. Stitt appointed five new members. Allbaugh said at the time the board has “a different set of ideas than I do.” The appropriation during this past session for FY 2022 was $494.7 million. The prison population has declined somewhat because of State Question 780 that changed simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and early paroles for some drug offenders as the result of passage of House Bill 1269 in 2019. 

But one has to wonder with a decline in appropriations of $22 million between FY 2019 and FY 2022, if ODOC is in for trouble. There have been recent outbreaks of violence and lockdowns at the institutions. Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, chair of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, has called for an immediate state-of-emergency declaration to address a critical shortage of correctional officers working in Oklahoma prisons. Humphrey estimates the current shortage to be between 300 and 400 corrections officers. Shortage of officers could cause long hours of overtime and a dangerous ratio of inmates to officers.

Underfunding its corrections system brought prison riots and landed Oklahoma in federal court in the 1970s. The same could happen again. In a press release last Friday, Rep. Humphrey said an officer shortage leaves prison staff and the inmates themselves unsafe. It could even result in ODOC being deemed criminally negligent for continuing to tolerate, with reckless disregard, a correctional officer shortage. “Oklahoma was placed under federal control due to this precise pattern of negligence,” Humphrey said. 

Criminal justice reform that would reduce Oklahoma’s excessive reliance on incarceration and better funding could avoid such a result. 

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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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