Monday, March 05, 2018

OCPA column: Fixing Future Budgets

Fixing Future Budgets
by OCPA President Jonathan Small

Some expenses are unpredictable. Will the transmission go out next month? Or, will it keep going for years? Other costs are predictable based on behavior. Keep grinding the gears and the transmission will fail.

This year, Oklahoma is set to become the most incarcerated state in the country. We already have more women behind bars, as a share of our population, than any other state. All this costs about half a billion dollars per year, for now.

While the number of inmates has increased over the last decade, spending has stayed mostly flat. Some of this has forced the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to become more efficient. At some point, however, if we keep sending them more inmates, costs must go up.

It is worse than that because of how prison costs rise. They do not just go smoothly up because when you have to build a new prison, the price tag for the whole system jumps. Several of those jumps are in Oklahoma’s future unless we change course.

When voters passed State Questions 780 and 781, that was a good start. Those measures were never sold as a panacea but as a way to put fewer non-violent offenders in prison and to pass some of the savings back to counties.

Several measures now before the Legislature would help limit jail and prison time for people who are not dangerous. Senate Bill 649, authored by Sen. Greg Treat, would limit how much extra prison time a non-violent offender can serve based on previous convictions. The bill has already passed both chambers and is currently in a conference committee.

Other bills would make it easier for people released from prison to get back to work, reducing the likelihood that they commit more crimes. Some of the most important measures would reduce the thicket of fines and fees that can lock offenders into perpetual poverty. Breaking the cycle of poverty and crime is not only humane, but is essential to protecting Oklahoma’s fiscal future.

Criminal justice reform is too important to Oklahoma to disregard, and it’s too important to play politics with. Oklahoma must remain dedicated to breaking the cycle of criminality and giving people the chance to restore their lives and find success in society.

It is time to stop grinding the gears when it comes to criminal justice in Oklahoma. Then again, it’s time to look at the whole car. A vehicle built for patronage, for spreading the money around, and protecting the good ol’ boys does not change simply by electing different people to run it.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.