March 27, 2011

Penal Reform Bill Awaits Senators’ Votes

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It’s not clear how much money a prison reform bill moving through the state Legislature could save Oklahoma, but its backers insist it will have a big payback over time.

House Speaker Kris Steele said House Bill 2131 only lays the foundation for addressing Oklahoma’s rising prison costs.

“HB 2131 is not the end of what we are trying to do,” said Steele, who sponsored the bill.

One of the bill’s major components would reduce the governor’s role in the parole process for nonviolent offenders, which Steele’s office has projected could save up to $10 million annually.

Meanwhile, a 2007 study commissioned by the Legislature said more than $40 million could be saved within 10 years by removing the governor from having to review parole requests for nonviolent offenders.

If implemented, the bill also would make hundreds more inmates eligible for community sentencing programs, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and allow more offenders to serve their sentences outside prison by providing more GPS monitoring.

The catch is that the bill provides no additional funding, while the projected cost savings are tied to a list of variables.

For example, it is unknown how many future offenders would be eligible for community sentencing, instead of serving their time in a costlier prison setting.

However, Steele says the cost savings would grow over time as Oklahoma reduces its prison population, which now leads the nation per capita for female incarceration and is among the top five for male offenders.

To achieve that goal, Steele said supporters of the bill, which passed the House 87-4 and awaits action in the Senate Appropriations Committee, “are going to have to fight for funds upfront and phase in our plan as money becomes available.”

Sen. Patrick Anderson, author of the bill on the Senate side, said having the speaker as sponsor of the measure increases its chances of passage. The Enid Republican said the strong vote in the House also makes it harder for the senators to sidestep the issue.

Part of the expected savings would come from expanding the number of offenders eligible for community sentencing. Corrections officials estimate 453 additional inmates would qualify under HB 2131.

An offender assigned to community sentencing costs DOC about $4.50 per day. The comparable cost of keeping a person behind bars is $10.43 a day.

Considerably more savings would occur over time if the number of those assigned to community sentencing reached a high enough count to actually close a prison.

The aspect of the bill that so far has received the most support is a provision removing the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders.

Oklahoma is the only state that requires the governor to make the final determination in every parole request, according to a recent survey by Oklahoma Watch.

The bill would transfer some of the governor’s responsibilities to the Pardon and Parole Board, which now forwards all parole recommendations to the governor. The bill stipulates that the governor would continue to have the final say in paroles sought by offenders convicted of violent crimes.

The governor has 30 days to review parole recommendations, but there are no repercussions for failing to act within the time frame. Under HB 2131, if the governor didn’t act within 30 days, a nonviolent offender’s parole request would be granted.

At the end of his term, former Gov. Brad Henry was taking about 80 days to process a parole recommendation, causing a logjam with dozens of inmates waiting for Henry to act.

Corrections Board Chairman Robert L. Rainey said members have been assured by Republican leaders in both houses that a revision of the parole process will pass this session.

Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, who voted against HB 2131, said he had an issue with another part of the legislation that would change how the Oklahoma Department of Corrections handles offenders with multiple sentences.

Currently, when an offender has multiple sentences, he or she serves those sentences “consecutively,” one after another, if the sentencing court did not specify its preference.

The legislation proposes that if the court doesn’t specify, the offender should instead serve multiple sentences “concurrently,” or at the same time.

Murphey said changing the sentencing default is a bad precedent to set.

Trent Baggett, District Attorney’s Council interim director, said the group hasn’t taken an official stance on the bill and doesn’t usually endorse legislation.

Baggett said the group was encouraged that HB 2131 wouldn’t force district attorneys to choose community sentencing but instead offers another option.

“It allows for consideration of people who deserve that opportunity, as opposed to forcing you to give that opportunity to people who don’t deserve it,” Baggett said.

Jaclyn Cosgrove, Oklahoma Watch staff writer, contributed to this story