Prison Growth To Continue Skyrocketing, Panel Predicts

Thursday, May 3rd 2007, 5:11 pm

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Oklahoma's inmate population, already crowding correctional facilities, will likely grow by 900 next fiscal year as the number of paroles and commutations have been declining, criminal justice experts told lawmakers Thursday.

The inmate population should reach 26,316 in the fiscal year that begins July 1, according to the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center.

In 1980, there were fewer than 5,000 inmates in the system, with much of the increase since then attributable to harsher sentences for drug crimes.

The center presented its findings Thursday to the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission, a panel of legislators, judges and other criminal justice experts.

"Prison receptions do not appear to be driving the growth in the prison system," K.C. Moon, OCJRC's executive director, told the commission. "Paroles and commutations signed by the governor have dropped dramatically."

The number of paroles or commutations signed by the governor has fallen from 2,868 in 2001 to 846 in 2006, a 71% drop, according to OCJRC statistics.

Henry spokesman Paul Sund defended the governor's parole rate, saying it naturally varies depending on the quality of parole files the governor receives.

"Governor Henry bases his parole decisions on public safety, not prison population projections, and he won't hesitate to reject a recommended parole if he thinks the inmate is not ready to reintegrate into society," Sund said. "The CJRC tends to advocate that the parole process be used as a prison overcrowding relief valve, but the parole system was never designed to function in that manner, and Governor Henry is not going to use it that way."

Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections is nearing capacity on male inmates and is expected to notify local sheriffs it will no longer accept new inmates at the DOC reception center in Lexington, said Sen. Richard Lerblance, chairman of the commission.

"If the DOC begins notifying sheriffs not to send any more prisoners, we've got a big problem," said Lerblance, D-Hartshorne.

Lerblance said he's attempted in recent years to pass a bill to remove the governor from the parole process, but the measure has not been successful. Lerblance also blames lawmakers for continually adding to the list of crimes that require offenders to serve a minimum of 85% of their sentence.

"The Legislature is going to have to take control of this issue we've created," Lerblance said. "Otherwise, we've got stormy weather ahead."

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