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Nothing ‘Anonymous’ about bad policies and ruined lives: Oklahoma’s prisons must change

Patrick McGuigan

By Patrick B. McGuigan
Associate Publisher

A new study from “Anonymous Analytics” takes on the issue of over-incarceration and devotes critical attention to Corrections Corporation of America, one of the largest firms in the private prison industry. The document hit the world wide web in early July.

Although laced with editorial commentary, the analysis accurately notes that the U.S. prison population peaked in 2009, then moderated as crime rates declined and more states moved away from lengthy incarceration of the non-violent.

The new study is the latest installment in the years-long struggle to awaken both budgetary scrutiny and moral indignation when it comes to unsustainable government prison policies.

As detailed in frequent news reports and commentaries posted by CapitolBeatOK and published here in The City Sentinel, Texas is one of a few states where corrections officials have recently actually moved to cancel construction of a new facility. The Lone Star State enacted reforms over the last decade that have flattened out the spiraling numbers, edging back from what was once, like ours, a perpetually booming prison population.

Oklahoma has the nation’s highest incarceration rate for women, and is consistently among the top five for incarceration of males. Fundamentally, the high incarceration rates are no mystery. They are the direct result of underlying laws and administrative practices.

Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Corrections Department, has advocated reform – and also long argued private prison operators have too much clout at the Legislature. He has clashed with House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, Gov. Mary Fallin and other elected officials, and is leaving government service this summer.

Is the case against private prisons in general, and CCA in particular, overstated in the “anonymous” study? Perhaps, but a libertarian I respect — Ryan Kiesel, a former Democratic state legislator now serving as executive director of the state ACLU – says the analysis “confirms what we’ve known in Oklahoma for some time now; private prisons are a bad investment.”

He continued, “Normally, I would say a business model that depends upon politicians making short-sighted, self-serving policy decisions would be a sound investment, but it is becoming more clear by the day that the private prison industry is a bad investment for states and shareholders alike.”

Additionally, Carl Takei, staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, commented, “The ACLU has known for years that for-profit prisons are a bad policy investment. Thanks to Anonymous’ report, we now know they are a bad financial investment as well.

“For 30 years, companies like the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) have capitalized on our country’s addiction to incarceration, converting an unprecedented prison population boom into big returns for investors. But as states increasingly pass reforms that wean us from our addiction to incarceration, CCA’s profits will dry up.”
The analysis reports Oklahoma is the seventh largest state customer for the Corrections Corporation of America.

Oklahoma state corrections spending jumped 30 percent over the past decade. In Fiscal Year 2012, the Corrections Department amounted to 8 percent of state appropriations (i.e. spending approved by the Legislature). Analysis from a variety of sources puts the state’s annual cost per inmate at $18,467, but that is likely an underestimate.
State leaders began to tackle Oklahoma’s unenviable high incarceration rates about four years ago. A series of reforms enacted in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – guided by then-House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee – mandated post-sentence supervision for released felons and were intended to edge the system to embrace alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes.

However, with term-limited Steele out of the picture, in 2013 momentum for the so-called “justice reinvestment” programs has faltered, and mandatory monitoring is largely ignored.

In recent months, a range of analysts, including this writer, have challenged the post-Steele House leaders, Gov. Fallin and Attorney General Scott Pruitt to implement the legislation as envisioned, rather than to “slow-play” reform as a way to push it off stage.

Even more critically, other analysts have contended that private prison advocates have played a behind-the-scenes role in the step away from Steele’s reforms. But those reforms have not been repealed – they are, fortunately, still the law.

Criminal justice is a core government function, but in the long run there is not an “either-or” question when it comes to private facilities. Private prisons and jails have performed a useful service and can continue to play a role in the system.

However, any entities or interests that retard the Sooner State’s shift away from its unwise and unsustainable prison policies should be challenged.

My friends at the ACLU and the authors of that “anonymous” analysis may or may not be right about the future profitability of private businesses already working on government contracts to house prisoners. The study, and men like Kiesel, certainly raises important questions about the sustainability of the high incarceration system Oklahoma and other states have developed.

In the final analysis, criminal justice policy should be guided by public servants, responsive to the Legislature, accountable to the electorate and able to adapt to changes in law – including Oklahoma’s move away from incarceration of non-violent offenders.

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