State Department of Corrections

What Budget Drama’s End May Mean For Key State Services

May 23, 2015
State Reps. Elise Hall (far right) and Katie Henke (center) applaud as the state House adjourns sine die Friday afternoon.
M. Scott Carter / Oklahoma Watch

The 55th session of the Oklahoma Legislature adjourned for the year late Friday afternoon, quietly ending four months’ worth of fighting over money, morals and museums.

For most of the session, a shadow hung over everything: a $611 million budget hole. 

Lawmakers chose to adjourn the session a week early, just days after they wrapped up work on the state’s $7.2 billion budget.

The budget cut funding to career and technology education, higher education and transportation. At the same time, more funds were steered to mental health services, public safety and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. Even with budget hikes, however, key agencies said they would likely have to cut spending.

In a move that surprised many, the Legislature approved a $25 million bond issue for the beleaguered American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City and a second $25 million bond issue for a museum of popular culture in Tulsa.

Lawmakers also debated issues such as same-sex marriage.

The shrinking pool of money available for appropriation quickly became the session’s central theme.

In February, after the Board of Equalization certified a funding estimate millions below the 2014 prediction, lawmakers went into damage-control mode. They warned agency heads little money would be available for next year.

“We’ve been telling them all session there would be cuts,” said Rep. Dennis Casey, R-Moorison, vice-chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.

By May, agency directors were convinced.

Wesley Fryer / Flickr.com

Governor Mary Fallin signed legislation Monday allowing judicial discretion for a number of nonviolent crimes.

House Bill 1518, known as the Justice Safety Valve Act, permits judges to lessen mandatory minimum sentences when the term is “not necessary for the protection of the public” and could “result in substantial injustice to the defendant.”  

creationc / Stock.XCHNG

The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has upheld a district court ruling that it's unconstitutional to require counties to use county revenue to house state inmates in county jails.

The ruling on Wednesday comes in a lawsuit filed in 2013 by the Bryan County Board of Commissioners against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. It challenged per diem rates paid for housing state prisoners.

The ruling says inmates are held in county jails on behalf of the state prison system, and the state constitution requires the state to fund the system.

Robert Patton, Director, Oklahoma Department of Corrections
Oklahoma Department of Corrections

The head of the Oklahoma's Department of Corrections says staff shortages and inmate overcrowding are jeopardizing the safety of prison workers and that many of them are leaving because of employee burnout.

DOC Executive Director Robert Patton told a Senate committee Wednesday that despite a pay increase for prison workers approved last year, the agency is struggling to retain workers. He says the agency needs to hire more than 850 prison guards to be fully staffed.

Robert Patton, Director, Oklahoma Department of Corrections
Oklahoma Department of Corrections

Oklahoma's governor and the head of the state's prison system are among those working on solutions to the state's rapidly growing prison population.

A criminal justice working group met behind closed doors on Monday to begin talks on how to curb the growth of Oklahoma inmates.

Legislative leaders joined with Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton and groups representing law enforcement, the state's mental health agency and others.

The latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show Oklahoma has the highest rate of prison homicides in the nation, with state inmates killed at a rate more than three times the national average.

The figures reviewed by The Associated Press as part of a months-long investigation show 39 homicides at Oklahoma prisons between 2001 and 2012, a rate of 14 per 100,000 inmates. The second highest rate is Maryland with 11 homicides per 100,000. The national average is 4 per 100,000.

Michael Harveson
Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch

Editors Note: This is the second in a series of stories reported jointly by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio.  The next Oklahoma Watch story will be published Sunday, and the next KGOU story will be broadcast Monday.

The court fees and fines that many nonviolent criminal offenders in Oklahoma must pay can be bewildering, especially if the offender makes a misstep, such as failing to pay on time.

After Prison, Many Offenders Mired In Debt

Feb 1, 2015
Darlene Lorenz, of Tulsa, is paying off about $91,000 in fines and fees related to her  convictions on various drug and firearms charges.
M. Scott Carter / Oklahoma Watch

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories reported jointly by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU. A radio segment will be aired on Monday, and the next story will be published on Tuesday.

Darlene Lorenz was released from prison seven years ago.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections

The Department of Corrections defended its fiscal year 2016 appropriation requests Tuesday during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and the Judiciary budget hearing.

The department is requesting appropriations that would be nearly 18 percent more than what they were given for the current fiscal year.

Director of Communications Terri Watkins said the agency wants to eventually get back to levels of funding it saw six or seven years ago.

okhouse.gov

An Oklahoma lawmaker has filed a measure to notify the public when inmates escape from state prisons.

The measure by Rep. John Paul Jordan of Yukon will act as an "Amber Alert" or "Silver Alert" system for the public whenever a prisoner escapes into the general population. Jordan says it would notify the public and give them an opportunity to protect themselves.

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