MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

October 28, 2012

SD9 duo discuss prison funding

Sentencing reform among suggestions to ease crunch

— State lawmakers learned last week that a chronic shortage of corrections workers in the state is jeopardizing public safety.

Underfunding the Department of Corrections makes it impossible to fill all the open positions, lawmakers were told. The maximum-security prison in McAlester, for example, is authorized to employ 521 workers. Just 363 positions are funded, and only 310 are filled.

Oklahoma’s penal system has been stretched to the limit, and reforms passed this year have yet to be tested. It is apparent the issue will come up again during the next legislative session.

Two candidates for the District 9 post in the state Senate offered suggestions about what might be done to ease the problems. Some ideas included increasing the focus on rehabilitation and sentencing reforms.

Sen. Earl Garrison, a Muskogee Democrat seeking his third term in office, said lawmakers “need to take a hard look at what we are doing to rehabilitate our non-violent offenders.”

“It is much costlier to keep them incarcerated than have them working and paying taxes like the rest of us,” Garrison said. “We need to be smart on crime.”

Barney S. Taylor, who is competing against the incumbent as a Republican, pulled no punches with his criticism of the state’s corrections system. Taylor said the system is “above capacity” and “what facilities the state does have are often inadequate and obsolete.”

“Add to this serious understaffing problems, and we are faced with a real problem,” Taylor said. “It greatly concerns me — I fear it is only a matter of time before we are looking at a federal takeover.”

Taylor said that although short-term staffing and infrastructure concerns need to be addressed, these are “not a long-term solution.”

He said felonies that typically result with a probationary term and fine upon conviction should be reclassified as misdemeanors.

Garrison made no express promise to provide additional funds for the state’s corrections agency. But as a “good steward” of citizens’ tax dollars, he said he would fight “to ensure that these core services continue to be adequately funded.”

“The biggest challenge we face in funding these and all other core services is the movement to eliminate the state income tax,” Garrison said.

“Considering the budget cuts that have been made in the last four years, eliminating the state income tax would destroy any hope for adequately funding, much less adding to core services.”

His Republican challenger advocated alternative sentencing and the expansion of drug courts and the use of electronic monitoring. Even those, Taylor said, are short-term solutions. For the long term, Taylor said, more focus needs to be placed on prevention.

“The only long-term solution is prevention, and it is well past time to get on with it,” Taylor said. “Anyone can pass a bill demanding more jail time — this is not prevention; that requires a much more active role.”

Garrison said he too would continue to support the use of drug courts in all counties. He said the programs have proven  successful by “providing opportunities for rehabilitation and keeping together families of nonviolent drug offenders.

“If I am blessed enough to serve another term, I will continue to work to keep the predators off the street and create opportunities for those who battle addiction to be reunited with their families,” Garrison said.

Garrison and Taylor will square off Nov. 6 during the general election.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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