November 14, 2011

Law Increases Inmate Release Eligibility

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In the weeks before a new law increased the use of GPS ankle monitorsfor Oklahoma inmates, a private halfway-house provider met with stateofficials to voice concerns about how the law could impact its business.

Avalon Correctional Services, the largest for-profit provider ofhalfway-house beds for Oklahoma inmates, met several times in recentmonths with officials at the Department of Corrections and in Gov. MaryFallin’s office, as well as with House Speaker Kris Steele, co-authorof the new law.

Though ultimately fewer than 170 inmates were released with GPSmonitoring Nov. 1, in the weeks leading up to the increased eligibilityrules, there appeared to be a backlash against the new law by variousparties, DOC Director Justin Jones said.

“We had 10 years of records showing this program works,” Jonessaid. But the department received a barrage of phone calls afterinaccurate reports circulated that Nov. 1 would mark the release ofseveral hundred inmates, he said.

House Bill 2131, aimed at reducing prison spending and overcrowding,didn’t change which inmates could become eligible for GPS monitoring,only the time frame. Inmates are now eligible to serve the remainder oftheir sentences on ankle monitors after 90 days in custody instead ofthe previous requirement of 180 days.

Among low-risk inmates, GPS monitoring has a greater than 90 percentsuccess rate for female offenders and an 87 percent success rate formale offenders – better than any specialty court, drug court orcommunity sentencing program, Jones said.

Representatives from Avalon Correctional Services were among theconcerned parties who met with Jones and his staff in the days leadingup to Nov. 1, he said.

“They were kind of aggressively concerned about what this was goingto do to their population,” Jones said. “Maybe there was somemisunderstanding with how this was to be implemented, but we don’tbelieve it will have a negative impact.”

Alex Weintz, spokesman for Fallin, confirmed that in October, staffmembers had a phone conversation with representatives of Avalon,followed by an in-person meeting with Avalon representatives, thegovernor’s staff and Secretary of State Glenn Coffee.

Concerns about GPS were discussed, as well as a more generalconversation about services provided by Avalon, Weintz said.

Steele’s staff met with Avalon representatives once before Nov. 1,and Steele later met with them to clear up any confusion about the law,he said.

Representatives from Avalon brought charts and discussed how theirbusiness model was at risk in Oklahoma, Steele said.

“They wanted to make sure I understood the merits of theirprograms,” Steele said. “They’ve seen a reduction in the numberof inmates assigned to their programs, and they were concerned aboutthat.”

Records show that inmate counts at Avalon facilities for Octoberthrough November 2011 have sharply decreased compared with the sameperiod in 2010.

The Avalon halfway house in downtown Tulsa was filled to 60 percentcapacity during that period, compared with 97 percent of capacity forthe same period last year.

Because DOC pays Avalon $33.75 per offender per day to house inmates,that decline can mean a revenue decrease greater than $4,000 per day or$120,000 per month for just one of Avalon’s facilities.

Brian Costello, president and chief operating officer of AvalonCorrectional Services, said the company’s primary concern was how thelaw’s changes would be implemented and affect public safety. He saiddecreases in its inmate counts were “kind of a side issue for us.”

“How it’s going to affect us was part of the conversation,”during meetings with the Governor’s Office, Steele’s staff and DOC,Costello said. “The real purpose of those meetings was not to affectpublic policy.”

Records show Avalon executives gave $6,000 to Fallin’s campaign. FiveAvalon executives have given about $140,000 combined to political actioncommittees and candidates for state office since 2006, records show.

Costello said that as a company, Avalon supported House Bill 2131 andits focus on “the way we attack the problem of the ever-increasingprison population in Oklahoma.”

To qualify for the expanded GPS program, inmates must be low-risk,nonviolent offenders serving a sentence of fewer than five years or whohave less than 11 months remaining on their sentences. All offenders whoqualify for GPS monitoring would likely also qualify for communitysentencing or halfway houses, but all who qualify for communitysentencing/halfway houses would not necessarily be eligible for GPSmonitoring.

The prisoners are still considered to be in DOC custody while on GPSankle monitors or living in a halfway house, such as Avalon’s facilityfor men in downtown Tulsa, its Turley residential center for women orthe Carver House for men in Oklahoma City.

Because of DOC’s continued budget woes, Avalon agreed two years agoto accept a 5.5 percent decrease in the per diem rate it is paid tohouse offenders, Costello said. An Avalon contract with DOC to houseoffenders assigned to public works crews in the Tulsa area was canceledin 2010 because of budget cuts.

DOC scrambled to cover budget shortfalls after its budget was pared to$462 million in 2011, down from $503 million in 2010.

Annual reports show Avalon had nearly $26 million in revenue and morethan $52 million in assets for 2010. Avalon’s headquarters are inOklahoma City, but it also runs facilities in Wyoming and is the largestprovider of halfway-house services in Texas.

“We do, I believe, a really good job of helping people get back ontheir feet and become productive members of society,” Costello said.

Avalon doesn’t have the same data as DOC to track the success ratesof offenders who stay at its halfway houses but says itsJuly-through-September data show success rates ranging from 80 percentto 86 percent at its three facilities.

Avalon would like DOC to consider expanding some of the eligibilitycriteria for community sentencing and halfway houses, as well as movingto an automated system similar to ones used by other states to identifyinmates qualified for its programs, Costello said.

“When we have a 325-bed contract facility with 190 people in it,obviously for a business like ours that impacts our bottom line,”Costello said. “We want to stay in business, so we have had an ongoingdiscussion with (DOC) about changing the eligibility for different typesof offenders.”

Because only a certain portion of the inmate population is eligible forcommunity corrections placement, the number of vacant beds at anyfacility is dependent on how large the eligible population is at anygiven time, Jones said.

The ebb and flow of inmates leaving is also impacted by factors such asparole and judicial review, he said.

Through time served and good behavior, inmates must earn their way downto minimum-security programs and facilities, such as Avalon’s halfwayhouses or DOC work centers throughout the state.

Success in those programs is often measured by the number of offendersgoing back to higher-security facilities for violating the rules, Jonessaid.

Earlier this week, four female inmates walked off from Avalon’sTurley facility and were later captured and returned to DOC custody.

“So are the numbers going down because we have a good parole monthand the governor signs off on a lot of cases?” Jones said. “Or maybeyou’re returning too many people to higher-security facilities orhaving too many escapes. It’s not an easy answer when it comes tokeeping those beds full. Many times a contractor is in charge of theirown outcome.”