Lawmakers Looking To Cut Prison Population, Costs

Lawmakers Looking To Cut Prison Population, Costs
Posted by CN Staff on March 09, 2003 at 20:18:42 PT
By Tim Talley, Associated Press Writer
Source: Oklahoman
Oklahoma City - From resurrecting the prison cap law to making marijuana possession punishable by the equivalent of a traffic ticket, Oklahoma lawmakers are looking for ways to cut the state's prison population and its skyrocketing costs. Faced with a $677 million budget shortfall next year, the 2003 Legislature is considering sentencing reforms and other proposals to reduce the state's incarceration rate, one of the nation's highest, without jeopardizing public safety. 
"It's trying to balance the need to reduce our corrections costs, which have just exploded over the last two decades," said James Drummond, a member of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission and chief of the non-capital trial division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System. The state Senate is considering a plan to resurrect the prison cap law. It would allow the early release of eligible, nonviolent inmates when prisons become too crowded, provided they have 60 days or fewer to serve on their sentences. The cap law was repealed in 2001, five years after an inmate released under the law shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her parents and wounded his 2 1/2-year-old son before he was killed by police. Last week, the Sentencing Commission handed down a list of proposed sentencing reforms, including elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses and allowing more offenders to receive suspended sentences and participate in community sentencing programs. The commission said the number of felony offenders projected for state prisons in the next few years will outstrip the number of prison beds the Department of Corrections can afford. "The idea is to expand the base of convicts who are sentenced to community sentencing to alternatives to incarceration," Drummond said. Recommendations include making possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a misdemeanor subject to a citation not unlike a traffic ticket. Offenders could still receive some jail time and be ordered to participate in mandatory treatment programs. Statistics compiled by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center found that drug and alcohol offenses are the leading causes of prison sentences in the state, accounting for 44 percent of all receptions in 2001. The center found that marijuana possession accounted for 12 percent of all felony drug possessors convicted in 2001. Drummond said Oklahoma has more minor, nonviolent drug offenders in prison per capita than any state in the region. District Attorney John Wampler of Altus, also a member of the Sentencing Commission, said the state needs more programs to treat alcohol and drub abusers as an alternative to incarceration. "The problem has consistently been the Legislature is not funding those programs," Wampler said. "Incarcerating someone is expensive. But treating someone is expensive as well." Another recommendation would give judges, not prosecutors, the authority to decide who is eligible for community sentencing programs. The commission turned down a similar proposal to make judges the gatekeepers for defendants assigned to drug courts. A constitutional amendment would be required to authorize another of the commission's proposals; not requiring the governor's approval for parole release unless the district attorney or victim has protested the inmate's parole with the Pardon and Parole Board. The Criminal Justice Resource Center found that 60 percent of all parole recommendations in the state are not contested by victims or prosecutors. A study released last month by the Oklahoma Alliance for Public Policy Research said Oklahoma's incarceration rate is 56 percent higher than the national average. Reducing Oklahoma's incarceration rate to the national average would purge state prisons of more than 8,000 inmates at a savings of more than $138 million a year, the study found. "I have no idea how close this will get us to the national average," said K.C. Moon, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center, which helped develop the sentencing commission's recommendations. "I know it will get us closer." Prison spending in Oklahoma has doubled to almost $400 million in the past 10 years and the inmate population has grown from 14,400 to more than 23,000. "It is unacceptably high," Drummond said. The state ranks fourth in the nation behind Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in the number of people it sends to prison per capita. The state Board of Corrections has resurrected a plan to place the state's more than 4,800 corrections workers on unpaid furlough to help offset a cut in the agency's budget due to the revenue shortfall. During a special session in November, the Legislature passed a $9.8 million supplemental appropriation to postpone the furloughs, which officials said could jeopardize public safety. Source: Oklahoman, The (OK)Author: Tim Talley, Associated Press WriterPublished: March 9, 2003Copyright: 2003 The Oklahoma Publishing Co.Contact: yourviews oklahoman.comWebsite: Articles:A Flood of Parolees Hits Streets American Gulag in The Making Millions Behind Bars in U.S. 
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment