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Prison Audit Aimed At Reducing Costs

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Housing more non-violent prison inmates in low-cost community work centers and moving inmates closer to medical facilities in population centers are among recommendations being considered for a comprehensive performance audit of Oklahoma's prison system. State lawmakers who reviewed the audit's preliminary findings and recommendations said Thursday that the sweeping review, launched last summer by MGT of America, Inc., is expected to contain a variety of plans for reducing prison costs and better managing Oklahoma's more than 25,000 inmates.

``We think they have come up with a myriad of different ideas to achieve that,'' said House Speaker Pro Tem Gus Blackwell (R-Goodwell) former chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. MGT, a Florida-based management research and consulting firm, is being paid $844,000 for the audit.

``The corrections audit was very wide in its scope,'' Blackwell said. ``We need to refocus and do more in the areas where it's working well.''

The state's $477 million prison budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 is an increase of 4.7% from the previous year. The Board of Corrections is asking for an additional $90 million for 2008 and another $34.2 million to finish out the current year. The state ranks 28th in the nation in population but is the nation's top incarcerator of women, and its overall incarceration rate is fourth in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Recommendations being considered for the final audit report, to be made public by the end of December, include placing more inmates in community work centers, minimum-security facilities where nonviolent offenders are placed near the end of their sentences to help them transition back into society. Blackwell said it costs about $10 a day to house an inmate in a work center but between $40 and $50 a day to house an inmate in a standard prison.

Another proposal would move inmates from prisons in remote areas of the state to locations closer to population centers and their abundant medical facilities, such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa, while reducing prison populations at prisons in outlying areas and changing the prisons' functions.

Blackwell said the idea would help reduce inmate medical costs, one of the largest expenses in the state prison budget, as well as the cost of transporting inmates from remote areas. Prisons are located all over the state but few are near population centers.

``It's like someone took a handful of darts and threw them at Oklahoma,'' Blackwell said. ``I think everyone would agree with replacing some of these with more efficient locations.''

The audit contains a variety of administrative proposals to halt the growth of Oklahoma's inmate population as well as ways to maximize the impact of alternatives to incarceration, including beefing up drug courts in Oklahoma City and Tulsa that have heavy case loads instead of expanding drug courts in rural areas.

``You're getting a lot better return on your dollar, so focus on those two,'' Blackwell said.

Representative Rex Duncan ( R-Sand Springs) chairman of the House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said the audit's recommendations will help build a consensus to implement ideas to make the corrections system more efficient.

``The big question that remains to be answered is what form will those changes take,'' Duncan said. ``It's safe to say that some of the business recommendations will be met with strong support and in other cases with some political opposition.''

Senator Richard Lerblance (D-Hartshorne) former chairman of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission, has proposed a $309.6 million, 25-year bond issue to add 1,568 maximum security beds at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and hundreds more beds at prisons across the state.

The cost of implementing the audit's recommendations are not yet known.

``I don't mind spending money, but I don't want to waste money,'' Blackwell said.

``The bottom line has got to be what's best for the state and the taxpayers,'' Duncan said.
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