The state's current severe budget crisis could finally force legislators and other public officials this year to address Oklahoma's burgeoning correctional system.
Oklahoma is the only state in the country that still involves the governor in every parole recommendation. The main problem with the current system is that any Oklahoma governor runs great political risk should he or she parole someone who later commits a heinous crime. This lowers the parole rate and keeps Oklahoma prisons filled. In the end, taxpayers end up picking up the tab for incarcerating too many people, and the state's image suffers because its justice system seems cruel and inhumane.
The sensational case studies for the governor-parole issue are well-known. The Republican Party virtually destroyed the political career of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, whose policies resulted in a weekend furlough for convicted murderer Willie Horton. Horton never returned and then later committed rape and assault.
The GOP pounded Dukakis with the issue when he ran for president in 1988. Just recently, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, drew heat for the 2000 sentence commutation of a convicted felon, who was the prime suspect in the November killings of four Lakewood, Wash., police officers. Some pundits have argued this will probably ruin Huckabee's potential presidential aspirations.
By removing the governor from all but the severe cases " murder, rape and other violent offenses " and turning over all other final decisions to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board or a new board, the system would be depoliticized, and more nonviolent prisoners could be released, saving the state money.
The issue has recently come up among sentencing reform advocates, and there appears to be bipartisan support. In an interview, state Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, said she will introduce a bill this coming session that she hopes could lead to a limited role for the governor in the parole process. She said there's a groundswell of support for the idea. State Rep. Sue Tibbs, a Tulsa Republican, has also supported changing the system.
Eventually, legislators could propose a constitutional amendment that could allow voters a chance to remove the governor from most of the parole process, which is now fraught with unneeded political complications that help keep the state's incarceration rates some of the highest in the country.
Legislators also need to pass legislation that will expand, not limit, treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. Unfortunately, the state has announced it's closing a drug and alcohol treatment center in Norman because of budget cuts. This is shortsighted. The decision should be overturned, and legislators should try to find ways to get more offenders help for their addictions.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma County officials are discussing a new jail project that could cost $350 million, which could be funded through a sales tax increase that must be approved by voters.
If the county doesn't build a new jail or renovate the existing one, the federal government is expected to step in and force it to do so. A fairly recent Justice Policy Institute report pointed out the high rate of incarceration in the county jail compared to other counties in the nation.
Will the state's budget crisis and public scrutiny over a proposed new jail project create the perfect storm for overdue corrections reform?
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.