Lawmakers Seek Studies on Prison Staffing, Other Criminal Justice Issues – Oklahoma Watch


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State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, has spent much of the summer sounding the alarm over Oklahomas prison understaffing problem.

On June 18 he asked Gov. Kevin Stitt to declare a state of emergency, arguing that low staffing numbers have elevated the risk of riots and violence in state prisons. Hes appeared on weekly Facebook Live broadcasts with Bobby Cleveland, director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals group, to provide updates on what hes hearing from prison workers.

Humphreys work will continue this fall when he hosts an interim study on prison staffing and other areas of improvement to the Department of Corrections. He said his goal is to bring criminal justice reform advocates, corrections department workers and other stakeholders together to brainstorm possible solutions.

Its just unbelievable, these guys are working like crazy, said Humphrey, a former Department of Corrections employee who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. I looked at one [timesheet] and out of 96 hours this guy had worked 60 hours.

On June 21 Oklahoma Watch published an in-depth report on the states struggle to hire and retain prison workers. Two former corrections officers quoted in the article said they found their job fulfilling but excessive hours took a toll on their physical and mental wellbeing. Two others said they could handle the overtime but became frustrated with management and decided to leave.

The state paid $19.4 million in overtime wages to corrections department employees in 2020, up 46% from 2017. Corrections officials say hiring and retaining workers can be challenging due to the difficult nature of the job and because most prisons are located in sparsely populated areas. The starting hourly wage for a correctional officer recruit is $15.74 an hour.

The agency has not released an official count of corrections officers. As of mid-June, the corrections department had 314 fully-funded, vacant positions.

The Legislature approved H.B. 2908, a line-item budget item last session that mandates the Department of Corrections spend $8 million annually to improve its correctional officer to prisoner ratio.

Humphrey says hell seek answers on how the corrections department plans to spend those funds while addressing other transparency-related issues. The agency has faced criticism from several lawmakers over its decision to close the William S. Key Correctional Center without legislative input. During a June 29 Senate hearing, corrections officials said they planned to inform lawmakers of their decision but an exclusive report by the Woodward News thwarted that plan.

Seventeen other interim studies on criminal justice issues take place from August through early November. These studies, requested by members of the House and Senate and approved by chamber leadership, dont usually generate official reports or recommendations but often help guide future legislation. Official meeting times and locations will be posted on the House and Senate websites.

Here are five other studies worth tracking:

Requested by: Reps. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City and Justin Humphrey, R-Lane

This study will explore ways to improve the safety, wellbeing and treatment of prisoners and correctional officers.

Last fall and winter, state prisoners and their family members complained that corrections staff werent following pandemic protocols and that prisoners were receiving small, carbohydrate-heavy meals. Meanwhile, correctional officers worry that persistent understaffing could cause a spike in prisoner-on-staff violence.

Advocates have also raised concerns over conditions at the Oklahoma County Detention Center. During a February inspection, state health department investigators discovered mold, bedbugs and cockroaches in several housing units. Jail administrators who submitted a corrective action report in early June say theyve ramped up efforts to hire more staff and keep housing units clean.

Former prisoners and correctional officers will be invited to participate in the meeting, according to the study proposal.

Requested by: Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa

This study (IS-2021-13) will look at felony classification systems in other states and how sentencing reform could help reduce Oklahomas prison population.

Oklahoma is among the few states that dont group felony offenses by severity. For example, in Texas the most serious non-capital offenses are classified as first-degree felonies punishable by five years to life in prison. Each crime in Oklahoma has a unique sentencing range determined by the legislature.

Criminal justice reform advocates say implementing a statewide felony classification system could help standardize sentencing practices, eliminate antiquated laws and ultimately reduce Oklahomas incarceration rate.

In 2018 the legislature voted to create the Attorney Generals Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council, a group of 22 district attorneys, retired judges, legislators and corrections department officials tasked with analyzing the states criminal sentencing code and offering reform proposals.

In March the council released a draft of sentencing reform recommendations. FWD.US, a Washington, D.C.-based prison advocacy group, has criticized the proposal, saying it would actually increase the states prison population by 1,000 over the next decade if implemented.

Rader introduced Senate Bill 704, a measure similar to State Question 805 that would have prohibited courts from imposing sentence enhancements on defendants who have never been convicted of a violent felony, defined as any offense listed in Section 571 of Title 57 of the Oklahoma Statutes. It passed through the Senate Public Safety Committee but stalled last session in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Requested by: Sens. Casey Murdock, R-Felt and Roger Thompson, R-Okemah

This study will examine how the Department of Corrections decides which prisons to close.

Northwest Oklahoma lawmakers were caught off guard by the agencys June 16 announcement that it would close the William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply by the end of 2021. The minimum-security mens prison housed about 900 prisoners and employed 140 staff.

Prison officials admit the announcement was botched but have stood by their decision, saying it would cost more than $40 million to repair its leaking roof and antiquated heating and cooling system. Murdock questioned why the agency didnt fix those maintenance problems sooner.

While the agency doesnt need legislative or board approval to close a prison, Murdock and other lawmakers have argued they need to be more transparent when deciding whether or not to close a prison because their decisions impact rural economies. Many of Fort Supplys 330 residents worked at the prison.

More prison closures could come as Oklahomas prison population continues to drop. There were 21,641 prisoners in state custody on July 26, down from 26,544 three years ago. Experts say a combination of justice reforms taking effect and the COVID-19 pandemics impact on district courts are contributing to the decline.

Requested by: Eight Republican representatives

Lawmakers will examine the state legislatures role in funding district courts.

Oklahomas 77 district courts rely heavily on fine and fee collections to fund basic operations. In 2014, 49% of the $152 million in fines collected by district courts was used on facility maintenance and to pay court employees. From 2007 to 2019, less than a quarter of district court funding came from state appropriations.

Boosting state funding to district courts could help alleviate the burden on justice-involved people, who are often arrested and thrown in jail for failing to pay a court fine, advocates say.

Requested by: Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond

Legislators involved in IS-2021-54 will evaluate Oklahomas criminal record expungement law and analyze reforms that other states have adopted to streamline the process.

Under current state law, most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony convictions are eligible for expungement five years after the completion of a sentence if the defendant has not been charged with or convicted of a new crime. Expungement can make it easier for those with a criminal record to find housing and employment, but its typically a time-consuming and expensive process.

Lawmakers in Utah and Pennsylvania have enacted laws granting automatic record expungement to most misdemeanor defendants after a certain amount of time has passed. Researchers say these clean slate laws remove financial barriers to expungement and benefit people who are no longer a threat to public safety.

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org.Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss

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Lawmakers Seek Studies on Prison Staffing, Other Criminal Justice Issues - Oklahoma Watch

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