Oklahoma stands on the edge of an unprecedented budget crisis with a conservative predicted shortfall of $600 million going into the 2018 legislative session.  Programs and services are already being slashed.  Teachers and public employees have not received raises in several years, and the problem is about to get worse, especially if lawmakers don’t pass criminal justice reform measures when they convene on February 5th.

Oklahoma is on a trajectory to increase its inmate population by 25 percent in just the next nine years.  That is why our Department of Corrections Director, Joe Allbaugh, has submitted a budget request of $813 million to construct two new prisons.  With Oklahoma’s prisons now at 109 percent capacity (146 percent if state inmates in county facilities are included) the sand has run out of the hourglass for lawmakers to choose a course of action.  They can either approve the DOC request, more than doubling the size of our current budget gap, or they can act upon several criminal justice reform bills currently stalled in a House Judiciary committee that could help reduce corrections costs, thereby reducing the taxpayer burden.

New prisons would not solve the problem of over-incarceration nor would they increase public safety. There is a better approach. Five bills that came from Governor Fallin’s Criminal Justice Reform Task Force recommendations stalled out last year with a Conferees Do Not Agree report.  That means lawmakers can hear those same five bills in the first week of the upcoming session.  These bills would increase parole numbers, restructure sentencing and promote alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.  Not only would these bills spare the taxpayers an even greater burden than they already face, but they would help protect public safety by preventing non-violent offenders from emerging from prison worse than when they went in.

Conservatives in the legislature are championing serious criminal justice reform bills this year, even authoring bills that go above and beyond the Governor’s recommendations, so we have reason to be optimistic.  As painful as Oklahoma’s budget crisis is, it may be the impetus we needed to solve an even greater crisis.