Oklahoma faces a severe budget crunch and a looming crisis in education funding, but when the state legislature met in an emergency special session Monday it wasn't to fund schools or hospitals. Instead, lawmakers approved a $9.8 million emergency funding bill for the state's prison system, with only one dissenting vote.
As DRCNet reported in May, prison spending in Oklahoma has nearly doubled in the last ten years to $400 million annually, driven largely by the jailing of large numbers of drug offenders (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/237.html#oklahomabudget). Last year, fully one-third (33.4%) of all new prisoners were drug law violators, compared to 13.7% who were convicted of violent crimes, according to the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center, a state agency.
The emergency appropriation, the second for the Department of Corrections this year, staves off mandatory furloughs of prison personnel to achieve across-the-board budget reductions in all state agencies. "Oklahoma has many budget challenges, especially in the public schools, but the most pressing problem at this point in time was in public safety," said Sen. Cal Hobson, who will lead the Senate next session. "Had we done nothing and allowed the furloughs to take place, the lives of state prison guards and the general public would have been endangered. That would have been irresponsible at best."
Although a few lawmakers questioned Corrections' efforts at cost-cutting, there was little mention of sentencing reform during the debate. But Hobson told the Daily Oklahoman that could changewhen the legislature goes back into session in the spring. Many senators indicated they wanted to get involved in discussions about prison policy then, he said. Community sentencing, expanding drug courts and reinstating a law repealed last year that forced the release of some nonviolent offenders if the prison population exceeded a certain level were all up for discussion, he added. "I don't think there is a quick fix," he said.
"For our schools and other important programs that are hurting, I know that this may not be the most popular use of emergency funds, but given the circumstances, it was the only responsible option available," said Hobson. "We all wish that we could snap our fingers and make all the budget problems go away, but, unfortunately, we don't have the resources to do that." It's not a matter of snapping fingers, though; it's a matter of political will. There are increasing signs that the state's dire financial situation could create that will where appeals to social justice fall on deaf ears.