A Dismal Christmas for Department of Corrections
Egregious overcrowding and decrepit facilities are converging upon Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections like a perfect storm. The tough-on-crime policies of yesteryear, particularly mandatory minimum sentencing, have come back to haunt Oklahoma’s taxpayers much like Jacob Marley’s other-worldly visit upon Ebenezer Scrooge. And, just like A Christmas Carol, Oklahoma’s story also offers a narrow window of opportunity to change directions.
While most other conservative states, such as Louisiana and Texas, have adopted criminal justice reform measures, Oklahoma languishes behind the times. The inevitable result? More and more lawsuits like that of inmate, Joseph Womble. Womble claimed a major victory in federal court this week as the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled his lawsuit over conditions at Mack Alford Correctional Facility can go forward. Womble says temperatures inside the facility often exceed 90° and his only source of water, the faucet in his cell, is unsanitary. He also contends the food served at Alford is inadequate, often undercooked, and contaminated with cockroaches or flies. But this lawsuit is most likely just the tip of the iceberg. Wompler also alleges, with the addition of extra inmates, the State of Oklahoma chose to ration food and reduce portions instead of increasing the food budget. It won’t be a surprise if more lawsuits follow. All of this could have been avoided.
Governor Mary Fallin and DOC Director Joe Allbaugh supported criminal justice reform that was proposed last legislative session. Reforms included frontend solutions such as reducing mandatory sentencing for low-level offenders and providing alternative sentencing for non-violent crimes. These solutions could have safely reduced state prison populations, thus reducing the financial burden on the DOC, but the legislature voted to kick the can down the road once again. Back in September, Allbaugh had warned, “We need to do something before something seriously happens…The state will end up paying a price and I’m hoping that price of delaying criminal justice reform does not come in the way of costing individuals their lives.” Without criminal justice reform, Allbaugh is now requesting an additional one billion dollars in effort to accommodate the state’s growing inmate population. This is not the right path forward for Oklahoma.
As Oklahoma faces the worst budget crisis in its history, lawmakers have a unique opportunity to slash spending by implementing serious, evidence-based reforms. Scrooge turned it around… we can too.