Drugs, alcohol driving Oklahoma's spiraling prison population

Monday, November 15th 2004, 6:13 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ New figures compiled by a criminal justice thinktank tell a familiar story about Oklahoma _ the state is putting more people in prison than ever before, driven largely by drug and alcohol offenders.

The figures also show that four adjoining counties in largely rural southwestern Oklahoma _ Jefferson, Stephens, Cotton and Comanche _ have some of the highest prison reception rates in the state, some more than twice as high as the state average.

Lawmakers, including the Oklahoma House's new Republican majority, will grapple with the state's spiraling incarceration rate again this spring when they hammer out a budget for the 2006 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The state Department of Corrections, which has appropriated more than $384 million for the current fiscal year, is seeking an $18 million supplemental appropriation so the agency can make ends meet through the end of the year.

Oklahoma's prison costs have increased 193%, or $253 million, in the past 16 years, according to figures prepared by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center and delivered to the Legislature last month by the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission.

At the same time, the state's inmate count has grown 106% to a total of 23,248, figures show. Since 1995, prison receptions for drug crimes has increased from 28% to 40% in the 2004 fiscal year.

The commission released its 2003 felony sentencing report amid complaints about the case of a man getting a life term for spitting on a police officer.

In September, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reduced the sentence to 30 years. Judge Charles Chapel wrote that the case is an example of the need for sentencing reform and for standards to review sentences.

Chapel said the court should modify sentences that are grossly in excess of other sentences imposed for the same crime in other counties.

Oklahoma ranks fourth in the nation in overall incarcerations per 100,000 residents. Only Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas send more of their populations to prison.

``This is the thousand-pound gorilla that continues to grow,'' said Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa, a former police officer and one of a growing number of lawmakers who believe alternative sentencing plans, like specialized drug courts and drug and alcohol treatment programs, are needed to reduce prison populations and costs.

``For 21-and-one-half years, my job was to put people in jail who broke the law,'' said Lamons, a member of the sentencing commission. As a lawmaker, Lamons said he must be a watchdog over state spending.

``We need to incarcerate the people we're afraid of, not that we're mad at,'' he said.

It costs $16,000 to house one inmate for one year in the state _ more than the approximately $11,000 it costs to enroll at the University of Oklahoma for a year, including tuition and fees, room and board and books.

``It's certainly a concern,'' said DeWade Langley, director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and a member of the sentencing commission.

``As a law enforcement officer, I don't think we ought to be soft on crime,'' Langley said. But the state needs to emphasize treatment programs for drug offenders ``in which we could perhaps make a real difference.''

Statistics show that about 58 percent of first-time felons sentenced to prison in 2003 were convicted of drug possession, distribution or manufacturing. Eighty percent of the state's criminal population was on drugs when they were arrested.

``We just need to be a little smarter in how we deal with these drug offenders,'' said Toby Taylor of Edmond, who represents the Victim's Compensation Board on the commission. ``It would be great if we have unlimited resources. We don't.''

``We keep doing the same thing with drug offenders over and over again _ and they keep coming back,'' said K.C. Moon, director of the Criminal Justice Resource Center. ``Is there another way you can deal with the drug crime other than incarceration?''

Supreme Court Justice James Winchester, also a member of the sentencing commission, said treatment and jail diversion programs for drug offenders must be tailored to acknowledge the nature of the crime and the willingness of the defendant to alter his behavior.

``It has to be on an individual case basis,'' Winchester said. ``Judges and communities must have alternatives that they can use.''

``Is it going to work 100 percent of the time? Probably not,'' Taylor said. But he said lawmakers should ``be willing to explore the possibility that options exist.''