A bill moving through the Oklahoma Legislature could allow many non-violent misdemeanor offenders to avoid a lengthy stay in county jail.

But it comes with a catch: Inmates would have to volunteer their work for free.

The program could save the counties money, but some inmate advocates cite a risk that it could lead to exploitation of inmates with loose oversight at county levels.

House Bill 3039, also known as the Debt to Society Act of 2016, has passed both the House and Senate with near-unanimous support. It only needs to clear one hurdle – the House approving a Senate amendment – before it goes to Gov. Mary Fallin.

The proposal would expand sheriffs’ ability to set up community-service or work-release programs for inmates. The inmates could cut their jail sentence by one day for each eight-hour shift they work for the local government or a private employer.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections now offers a similar option through its Prisoner Public Work Program. Counties don’t usually offer such programs because, unlike the state, they lack certain liability protections, such as for lawsuits arising out of an inmate’s injury on the job.

Rep. John Jordan, R-Oklahoma City, said he authored the bill to include these protections for counties so they can free up jail space and reduce their costs.

“We are just trying to be smart on crime,” he said. “Instead of 30 days in jail, we are going to have you work 30 days and serve your community.”

The bill wouldn’t tap state funds. Instead, counties could fund the program by taking a portion of the pay inmates receive for their work, and inmates could keep the rest for valid personal uses or payment toward their fines and court fees.

The state’s Prisoner Public Work Program requires inmates to be paid at least minimum wage for work-release jobs outside the prison. But up to 50 percent of the offender’s wages can be used for “program support,” according to Corrections Department guidelines.

Jordan said the cost for the programs could also be offset by savings from not having to pay the more expensive costs to house, feed and care for the jail inmates. He added it is more likely that inmates would be used for community-service projects, such as cleaning up public roadways, than for work at private businesses.
Jordan added that offenders can choose whether or not to participate. And, he said, even if they receive little or no pay, they might still be able to pick up new skills or job references that could help them after.

The bill ultimately would allow these and other rules to be developed by the local sheriff with approval by a district court.

Kris Steele, a former state House speaker and director of The Education and Employment Ministry, which advocates for criminal justice reform, said he supports the proposal but hopes that county programs could include safeguards against exploitation of inmate labor.

“Theoretically, this sounds like a win-win,” he said, adding, “if there is a way to reduce the jail population and actually use the time of a person who otherwise would be sitting in a jail cell and use their time productively, I think theoretically it could be a big benefit.”

Lynn Powell, director of OK-CURE, a nonprofit that focuses on jail and prison issues, said she also supports the proposal but more oversight might be needed.

“Some states have set up a board for these type of things,” she said.

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