McALESTER, Okla. (AP) _ Lawmakers know it will take an infusion of cash to meet a $31 million budget shortfall for the state Department of Corrections, but it may take a groundshaking change in attitudes to address a booming prison population and crumbling facilities.
While steps can be taken to meet the immediate needs of state prisons, lawmakers must still wrestle with chronic underfunding and a prison population that has grown each year for the past 15 years to the point that lockups are nearing capacity.
Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, said getting some of that work done may take a shift in priorities.
``I think it is worthwhile to look at the laws,'' Leftwich said. ``Do we want to send people away 20 years for writing a hot check? Do we want to send them away 35 years for drug possession?
``We have to look at what do we want and what are we willing to fund.''
Getting tough on crime, a stance that has made Oklahoma a leader in incarceration rates, comes at a cost. Addressing that cost will take more than bailing out the Corrections Department this year, Leftwich said.
``We have got to come up with more prisons or more facilities for prisons or we have got to take a look at the laws,'' Leftwich said.
The Corrections Department received a $409 million budget for the fiscal year that started on Friday. Corrections Director Ron J. Ward said the budget falls $31 million below departmental needs and does nothing to address $100 million in needed capital expenditures at state prisons.
The capital needs include roof repairs at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and other prisons, improvements to prison waste water systems and a variety of maintenance issues.
``We have not been able to do any kind of security upgrades within the agency's budget in the last eight or nine years,'' Ward said. ``This year we added some metal detectors, items that are standard in other states, only after we put off some other capital needs.''
Gary Jones, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said the state prison budget is below appropriations levels from 2002.
``It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that we are not paying for corrections,'' Jones said.
The funding shortage comes as the number of inmates is swelling.
Overall, the prison population has doubled in the past 15 years. A total of 23,688 inmates were confined in state or private prisons and county jails as of last week, according to the Department of Corrections. At the end of 1989, that total was 11,274.
Ward estimated that the additional inmates cost the state $3.7 million over projections per year.
State prisons also suffer from a 21 percent vacancy rate in staffing because of low pay and budgeting that is consistently below authorized staffing levels. State prisons are authorized to have 2,553 correctional officers but only 1,973 are employed, officials said.
``We are severely understaffed,'' Ward told senators touring the Oklahoma State Penitentiary this week. ``Taking funding out of personnel (to meet the shortfall) is not an option. Take personnel out now and things start to happen.''
Some of those things are already taking place. Nearly every minimum security facility has had at least one inmate escape this year, Ward said. Assaults on corrections officers have also increased, he said.
A state Senate subcommittee that oversees corrections funding gathered twice last week, including the trip to the penitentiary in McAlester, with a looming July 14 deadline to determine funding demands. The subcommittee is seeking some or all of a projected $23 million surplus in state revenues.
The subcommittee plans to meet again on Wednesday to hear testimony from correctional officers about how inadequate staffing affects their ability to protect themselves and the community.
Even with more funding, the system will have trouble handling the rising number of prisoners. Ward said state prisons are at 98 percent capacity.
When Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau, asked how the department planned to handle more prisoners, Ward said state funding would be used to pay counties and municipalities to house offenders.
Leftwich said it also makes sense to revisit truth-in-sentencing laws and alternatives like drug courts as options to locking up more Oklahomans. The early results from drug courts in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties convinced her that getting drug abusers help with their addictions rather than warehousing them in prisons might make sense, she said.
``It's early, but the drug courts have shown low recidivism,'' Leftwich said. ``I'm encouraged by the success rate.''
If those successes continue, then perhaps there will be a model for dealing with a class of nonviolent offenders, she said. Of the record 8,957 new inmates received by corrections in the past year, drug and alcohol abusers accounted for 4,294, or almost half, according to the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center.
``I think the mind-set is changing,'' Leftwich said. ``We have to decide if we want to spend $45 a day to put someone in prison for drug abuse or if we want to spend $14 a day for drug court. I think Oklahomans are starting to consider that.''
It's not a matter of going soft on crime, Leftwich said. Oklahoma has always done a good job of locking up murderers, rapists and other sex criminals, she said, and that won't change. It just might be time to look at some alternatives.
``We can't keep up the 'lock up and throw away the key' mentality,'' she said.