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Overcrowded Prisons: Oklahoma's Criminal Crisis

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The head of Oklahoma's prison system recently told lawmakers that the state's prison system is over capacity and dangerously understaffed. The head of Oklahoma's prison system recently told lawmakers that the state's prison system is over capacity and dangerously understaffed.
But despite pressure to reduce the overcrowding problem, beds in county jails that were occupied by state prisoners until just over a year ago sit empty. Many county sheriffs are frustrated. But despite pressure to reduce the overcrowding problem, beds in county jails that were occupied by state prisoners until just over a year ago sit empty. Many county sheriffs are frustrated.
OKLAHOMA CITY -

The head of Oklahoma's prison system recently told lawmakers that the state's prison system is over capacity and dangerously understaffed. What's more, Corrections Director Robert Patton says, the inmate population continues to grow -- another 1,200 expected in the next year.

But despite pressure to reduce the overcrowding problem, beds in county jails that were occupied by state prisoners until just over a year ago sit empty. Many county sheriffs are frustrated.

"There was no warning that it was coming, it just started happening," said Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel.

In April 2014, the Department of Corrections, newly under Patton's leadership, began abruptly pulling hundreds of state inmates from county jails. The move not only left sheriffs with scores of underused cells, but also left them with sizable holes in the budgets.

The inmates that were pulled are known as 'backups', or 'J and S's' because they've been judged and sentenced, but not yet placed in state custody. DOC pays county sheriffs $27 per day to hold a backup inmate, which meant certain sheriffs saw their revenues drop sharply.

"This year it's impacted our budget to the tune of about $3 million," said Whetsel.

Whetsel says the loss -- about 7 percent of his total budget -- is forcing him to cut 112 positions within his office, most through attrition.

"We're gonna see cuts in patrol and courthouse security...and in the jail," Whetsel explained. "Every place that we have people, we'll have service cuts."

The impact of the inmate removal is being felt, not just in Oklahoma County, but in sheriff's offices across the state. The Oklahoma Sheriffs Association reports $12 million and 195 jobs lost, based on the responses of 35 sheriff's offices to a survey sent out last year.

Whetsel says, inevitably, this is putting the public at greater risk.

"You always look at, when you cut personnel," said Whetsel, "you enhance the risk."

Around the same time that Patton was pulling offenders out of county lock-ups, he ordered that inmates who'd lost earned release credits for certain behavioral violations should have those credits restored. The result was that many were suddenly eligible to be released from custody.

"It wasn't too long after the release of inmates that we were getting calls from sheriffs all over the state," said Ray McNair, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association.

McNair says sheriffs were concerned that DOC had released inmates early in order to minimize overcrowding, and, in the process, had created a second public safety risk.

"A lot of these people that they knew that had been sentenced--that they had arrested and had been sentenced through the courts in that county," said McNair, "are now back in the county and reoffending."

"This wasn't an early release program," said DOC Director Robert Patton.

Patton says these inmates had earned release credits, according to state statute, and had them taken away for what he says were often minor misconducts.

"It's one thing to take them," said Patton, "bit you have to have a mechanism to give them back. Is it worth the taxpayer's dollar to keep someone in prison six months longer...because you weren't wearing your ID card?"

Department of Corrections officials say they have been monitoring this group of inmates that gained release last year through the restoration of earned release credits. They say, of the 2,255 who were released, 82 have since been returned to the Department of Corrections.

That's a recidivism rate, so far, of less than four percent. DOC officials say the average recidivism rate is 22 percent.

Patton says he made the decision to restore earned release credits, in part, to help manage prison population, but rejects the notion that he brought the overcrowding problem on himself.

"Some people will say that's the reason you're overcrowded, it's because of the county jail backlog," said Patton. "Understand, we did that months ago, that's off the books -- since that day, we've grown another 1,200 inmates."

Patton told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee in March that the prison system was 116 percent of capacity. It's his contention that the system has been over capacity for years, but that the department's prior leadership concealed that fact by backing up prisoners in county jails.

"Oh, absolutely, that's what was going on," said Patton. "It wasn't underhanded -- I don't want you to think that -- it was just a way to manage prison population that i don't agree with."

Patton says when he first came on board, one of his top priorities became determining exactly how large the prison population was.

"I have a constitutional duty to the Governor, to the Board of Corrections, to the Legislature," said Patton, "to let them know what the true needs of the Department of Corrections are, and I can't do that if I don't know how many inmates I have."

He knew that some J-and-A inmates were in county jails, but it wasn't clear just how many, so Patton started reeling them in.

"And the dominoes just continued to fall," Patton remarked. "I don't know if they knew how exactly how many they had backed up in there."

The official number of backup inmates when Patton became director was just over 1,800. Patton says it turned out there were actually closer to 5,000.

"When I came here," said Patton, "everyone talked about transparency: 'We want you to be transparent, we want your agency to be transparent, we want to know'...well, now you know."

The inmate population is currently right at 27,800, Patton believes, at the current growth rate, the system will be at 130 percent of capacity within a year.

Sheriffs say they can help.

"We have the space right now," said Sheriff Whetsel.

Whetsel says it could be a win-win for the taxpayer, since the rate DOC pays county jails to hold J-and-S inmates is less than what it costs to hold them in the state or private facilities. He says the system that was in place before Patton changed things worked.

"It gave the Department of Corrections a place to house inmates temporarily before they were moved into the prison system," said Whetsel, "[and] it gave sheriffs the ability to have revenue to be able to pay bills."

Patton is aware that many sheriffs would like DOC's revenue flowing back to their offices, but he says there's no going back to the way inmates were backed up before. Patton says they often stayed in county jails for months -- some even years -- before the sheriffs turned them over to the state. And, he says, all that time the offenders weren't receiving the treatment and rehabilitation help they needed.

"What does that do toward rehabilitation?" Patton asked. "What does that do toward preparing offenders for release?"

Patton says he'll gladly send inmates back to county jails, but only with a contract guaranteeing minimal standards of programming and care. He says sheriffs can't have it both ways.

"They want the offenders--most of them want the backup offenders," said Patton, "but they don't want the responsibility of a contract."

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