Budget Crunch I: As Oklahoma Goes Broke, Drug War Fuels Ever-Increasing Prison Budgets 5/17/02

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Oklahoma's drug war, driven by the incorrigible incarcerators in the legislature and prosecutors' offices across the state, has turned into a huge black hole, sucking up tax dollars and human beings alike. Like more than 40 other states, Oklahoma is facing a bleeding treasury and a budget deficit this coming fiscal year, but even as other programs have been slashed across the board, the state Department of Corrections keeps gobbling up more to incarcerate more drug offenders. Although prison spending has nearly doubled in 10 years, to almost $400 million this year, in February Corrections wanted $46 million in "supplemental" appropriations to house more inmates. It got $9 million from lawmakers gloomily eying a fiscal forecast growing more dire by the day. Emergency across-the-board budget cuts at all state agencies announced in April would cost the department roughly $6 million in the current quarter, but Corrections moved to sidestep that cut by coming back last week with a new "supplemental" request, this time for $26 million. And Corrections is lining up for a battle for even more funds next year.

So it goes in Oklahoma, the state where multi-century sentences are not uncommon and multi-millenium ones not unheard of. But it's not heinous mass murderers and serial rapists filling the cellblocks in Oklahoma, it's drug offenders and drunk drivers, according to a report given to the legislature last week by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center (OCJRC), a state agency. During the 2001 fiscal year, OCJRC reported, fully one-third (33.4%) of all new inmates were drug offenders, the majority of them for simple possession, usually of methamphetamine, the most hyped drug menace throughout the region. An additional 10% of new inmates were drunk drivers. Violent criminals, on the other hand, accounted for only 13.7% of new inmates.

The report abounded with other statistics that demonstrate the harshness of Oklahoma justice. First-time drug possessors, for instance, had an average sentence length of nearly four years. Also, more than 37% of all those sentenced to prison during the year had no prior felony convictions. And the legislature is hearing about the consequences of such policies as well. Last month, OCJRC and the Department of Corrections warned that the prison population, now 22,000, will grow by 6% in the next two years. The increase will require an additional $11.4 million in the coming fiscal year alone, not welcome news as the state faces a $350 million budget deficit and further program slashing.

The costs are starting to force change in Oklahoma. Gov. Frank Keating (R), no soft-on-crime liberal, has proposed possible sentencing reforms that would send nonviolent first-time drug offenders to treatment or community centers. The state's Sentencing Commission is reviewing that proposal now. And an ongoing community sentencing program to divert low-level offenders kept 896 people out of prison last year. But that constituted only 5% of all felons that year, and the system is still growing.

Legislators are beginning to balk at the continuing high bills for locking up minor offenders. "The obscenity is spending less than $5,000 to educate a child and more than $20,000 on a felon," said Sen. Dick Wilkerson (D-Atwood) earlier this session. "It just flies in the face of logic." Wilkerson, who heads the Public Safety and Judiciary appropriations subcommittee that hears corrections budget requests, is in a key position to push sentencing reform, and has criticized hard-nosed solons and prosecutors "who think they are doing the Lord's work."

Meanwhile, Oklahoma taxpayers are paying out the nose and nonviolent drug users are going to its prison by the thousands each year.

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Issue #237, 5/17/02 Medical Marijuana Wars Heat Up: Activists Announce Day of Direct Action Against DEA, Plan Emergency Response to Expected Raids | Anti-Drug Ads a Flop, Says Drug Czar, Please Give Us Money for More | MarijuanaInfo.org: New Medical Marijuana Web Site Provides Forum for Warring Views, In-Depth Exploration of Issue | Budget Crunch I: As Oklahoma Goes Broke, Drug War Fuels Ever-Increasing Prison Budgets | Budget Crunch II: Massachusetts Vote Imperils All of State's Methadone Clinics, Supporters Mobilizing | Prison Reform Advocates Blast 7 UP Commercial for Trivializing Prison Rape, Call for Boycott of Cadbury Schweppes Product | Newsbrief: Nevada Petition Drive to Legalize Marijuana Possession Underway | Newsbrief: Madison Suspends Raves at County Venue | Newsbrief: Barr Booed for Anti-Pot Remarks in Home District Event | Newsbrief: Canadian Mounties Follow US Lead, Discover Drug-Terror Connection | Newsbrief: Canada Prisons Propose Ignoring Inmate Cannabis Use | Newsbrief: Afghan Warlords Allied to US Growing Rich Off Opium Trade, Says Expert | Newsbrief: Dionne Warwick Busted for Marijuana at Airport Amidst Heightened Airline Security | Newsbrief: Pipe Bong Found in Rural Illinois Mailbox | Clarification from Dana Beal | Articles and Resources | The Reformer's Calendar

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