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OK prison study makes recommendations to lawmakers

Oklahoma City_Longer prison terms, low parole rates, and an ineffective drug court system - just three reasons an auditing firm says Oklahoma prisons are already over capacity levels and will be about 4,000 beds short in ten years.  State lawmakers spent about $850,000 of your tax money for the report.  A group from Austin, Texas, spent the past four months gathering information on Oklahoma's Corrections System and released its findings at the capitol on Friday. 

Now, it's up to lawmakers to first digest the information, and second, to follow or ignore the report's findings.  It's very detailed, but there are a few key points you should know.  In 2016, the report predicts Oklahoma's prison population will reach nearly 29,000 inmates.  As of now, there are fewer than 25,000 beds available, and unless they keep throwing money at the problem, lawmakers know something has to change.

"Citizens of Oklahoma have made a decision - this is the way we want our criminal justice policy to behave - and, the outcome is: it's going to cost you," says Kenneth McGinnis from MGT of America.  "Now, there's alternatives to that public policy some of which you may like or some you may not, but there's clear dollar savings to be had out there."

One big alternative already in practice is drug courts, but the auditing firm says they are not effective.  "People truly are spending significantly longer periods of time in prison once they fail the drug court than what they would have gotten if they had not gone to drug court at all," McGinnis says.

Because most inmates are in prison because of drugs, the total prison population will continue to rise, according to the report, unless the penalty for drug court failures is lowered.  "In our estimation, if you cap it about 60 months, it simulates what the offender would have gotten if they went straight to prison," says McGinnis.  And, I think that's what I think you want to do."  Right now, it's 74 months.

Another big issue in the report- parole rates.  They are currently at about 18% in Oklahoma.  Compare that to 30% in Texas, 56% in Pennsylvania, and 51% in Michigan.  "Clearly the parole board and the governor's involvements in the board's decision has been extremely unstable.  And by unstable, I mean there has not been a consistent level of approval rates," says McGinnis.

The Governor says his decision to parole is based on public safety - not cost cutting.  As for lawmakers, they have a few more weeks to come up with a proposal based on this report before the legislative session begins in February.  The report also found private prisons are currently more cost effective than state run facilities.  Auditors also noted a backlog of about 1300 inmates in county jails waiting to be transferred to the Department of Corrections.

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