CUSHING, Okla. — In an effort to combat the state’s increasing prison population, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections will soon begin a new program that allows certain nonviolent prisoners nearing the end of their sentence to be released from prison under supervision.
During the Oklahoma Board of Corrections meeting at the privately-owned Cimarron Correctional Facility on Tuesday, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh told the board that the department is taking the action because the Legislature has done little to stem the growth of the state’s record prison population.
“We have to start somewhere,” Allbaugh told the board. “In the past, we’ve waited around for other folks in authority to help us address our population problems. The time for us waiting is over. We have to take steps authorized by state law and create programs that help address our population.”
Currently, the state’s prison system is at 109 percent capacity, with a record 63,171 individuals either incarcerated or currently under Department of Corrections Supervision, Allbaugh said.
The department’s new Community Supervision Program would allow some nonviolent, minimum-security prisoners who are within 18 months of completing their sentences to be released under GPS supervision and supervision by a probation and parole officer. Offenders will be required to report to a probation and parole officer within five days of release, and must contact their parole officer at least twice a month.
For the first six months after being released, the offender will be required to submit to passive GPS monitoring, said Laura Pitman, the department’s director of population, programs and strategic planning. Passive monitoring means the location data is not transmitted from the device in real-time, and a prisoner may be put on “active” monitoring status if they commit a minor rule violation that doesn’t warrant a return to prison, she said.
Offenders who have convictions on violent offense, “85 percent” offenses , sex offenses, domestic violence offenses, drug-trafficking, consecutive sentences, pending felony cases or who have active protective orders are not eligible for the program, according to the Department.
Allbaugh stressed to the board that the program was not a “release” program that sets offenders free without supervision.
“This is like any other program. This is not going to be a release program. This is just a different type of custody,” Allbaugh told the board. “No one is going to be released, but we are going to try to take a stab at reducing our population since we’re not exactly receiving help from the individuals responsible for this.”
The department’s new Community Supervision Program is an effort to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prison system, Allbaugh said.
The state’s prison system is at 109 percent capacity, with a record 63,171 individuals either incarcerated or currently under Department of Corrections Supervision, Allbaugh said.
Pitman told the board that the department has identified around 1,400 offenders who might qualify for the program, but estimated that at least half of those would be screened out prior to being accepted into the program.
The program is set to begin on Oct. 1, Pitman said, but it is unclear when the first prisoner will be released to supervision, as the screening process will likely be lengthy.
“It will be a slow trickle,” Allbaugh said. “We won’t be letting folks out on ankle bracelets overnight.”
Asked by the board whether lawmakers and others in authority had been briefed on the program, Allbaugh responded that they had, though few had offered feedback and the main concern expressed was the department’s statutory authority to create the program.
Allbaugh said the new program is authorized under a state law that allows the Department to extend the limits of confinement for certain offenders or grant offenders a pass to be away from a correctional facility to contact prospective employers or participate in work, educational or training opportunities.
The criminal justice reform measures passed toward the end of the last legislative session will do little to impact the prison system’s current population, Allbaugh said, and the prison system’s growth has continued unabated.
Currently, the department is around 1,000 correctional officers short, with around 1,700 on staff, Allbaugh said, making it difficult to fully staff the prisons.
“We’re having to use mandatory overtime to cover all of our important posts,” Allbaugh said. “That has to change. Mandatory overtime has to come to an end at some point. The only way to affect that is for the Legislature to give us money to be competitive and hire more correctional officers.”
The department is also shorthanded on probation and parole officers, with around 270 officers monitoring more than 34,000 offenders, Allbaugh said.
Allbaugh said the additional inmates being released under supervision through the program probably wouldn’t be a huge additional burden for probation officers because the screening process will be robust, but he added that more probation officers are needed to properly supervision.
“They are asked to do amazing things,” Allbaugh said.
In a media release, Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, criticized the program, saying it would endanger the public.
“The executive branch has now moved past playing political games and on to actually endangering the public,” Biggs said. “If we want to get nonviolent people out of prison and into a program that will help rehabilitate them, I am all for it, but this proposal does the opposite.”
Biggs said the inmates the department has identified for possible supervised release were selected by using the metrics outlined in a failed criminal justice reform measure that had been backed by Gov. Mary Fallin, and that those metrics did not adequately distinguish “violent” from “nonviolent” offenders.
In his press release, Biggs asked Fallin to have the department scrap the program.
“I ask that the governor tell the department of corrections what her staff has already admitted to me in meetings — their definition of violent and nonviolent crimes needs correcting,” Biggs said. “The governor has written letters and spoken at conferences about her desire to keep violent offenders in prison. To do this, she must instruct DOC to abandon this reckless proposal.”