October 9, 2013

State House interim study focuses on corrections reform

10-9-2013 Oklahoma:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Corrections reform in various shapes and sizes, including Rep. Jeannie McDaniel’s suggestion for early release of some elderly inmates, was on the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee’s agenda Tuesday afternoon.

Meeting for a series of interim studies, the committee and a line of witnesses thrashed around reasons for the state’s high incarceration rates — and high incarceration costs — while touching on subjects that ranged from bogus check revenue to the state’s sex offender registry.

Brady Henderson, a former Cleveland County assistant district attorney who is now legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said the state’s population has grown 26 percent since 1980 while the prison population has increased 444 percent.

“I don’t believe we’re 444 percent more safe than we were in 1980,” Henderson said. “Nor do I believe we are 444 percent less safe than we were in 1980.”

The proposal offered by McDaniel, D-Tulsa, would affect about 680 inmates out of a total population of 26,000. Violent offenders would not be eligible, and those seeking early release because of their age would have to win the support of the Pardon and Parole Board and would have to have family members willing to take them in.

Henderson said McDaniel’s proposal “is not a wholistic solution. … Six hundred and eighty is not going to make a big difference. What it is is a first step.”

“We need to give the Pardon and Parole Board the authority to do what prosecutors can do, essentially,” Henderson said. “Look beyond what is on a piece of paper and ask, ‘What really happened here? What’s going on with this defendant?”

Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said one reason for the state’s rising incarceration rate is that courts and district attorneys have become so reliant on the fees assessed those charged with crimes.

“We decided at some point … we were not going to fund the courts and the administration of criminal justice through general revenue,” Williams said. “We decided we were going to put it on the backs of people who are part of the system.

“It sounds great, but the unintended consequences are what usually come back to bite us. In this case, I believe we have removed the incentive for prosecutors to use prudence in prosecution.”

Williams was particularly critical of the $40-per-month “supervision” fee district attorneys charge probationers and parolees assigned to them. Williams said that in some counties the District Attorney’s Office keeps the $40 and passes the supervision on to a private firm that charges an additional $40.

“What we’re doing is creating a form of debtors prison,” said Williams.

Greg Mashburn, district attorney for Cleveland, McLain and Garvin counties, said potential revenue does not enter his calculations on whether to prosecute a case, but he agreed that he spends more time than he would like worrying about making ends meet. The supervisory fee — which some district attorneys now call a “prosecution fee” — makes up about 20 percent of his budget.

Mashburn said the fee makes up for the drastic revenue loss from bogus check collections. In 1980, the state set up a program that allowed district attorneys to charge a fee for recovering payment for bad checks, but because fewer checks are being written and more checking accounts offer overdraft protection, less money is being collected.

The last study of the day involved the state’s sex registry offender. The general tone was that the registry includes many people who pose little or no threat to society and that keeping track of them takes up time that could be better spent monitoring or arresting more-serious predators.

A presentation by Rebecca Walkup of Oklahoma Reform Sex Offender Laws on problems encountered by people on the registry for relatively minor or even dubious offenses prompted an explosive response from committee Chairwoman Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle.

Osborn called Walkup’s testimony a “liberal diatribe” and said “85-90-95 percent” of those on the registry are “vicious, disgusting, animals.”

“Do not pretend these are poor, downtrodden people who have been put on this registry (and) need our sympathy,” Osborn said

The outburst seemed to stun most of those in the room and left a few, apparently there in support of Walkup, in tears.

McDaniel and Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, noted that Walkup did not advocate for elimination of the registry and that even law enforcement agencies think too many low-risk offenders are on it.

“The people you’re talking about need to be in prison,” Virgin said.
..Source.. by RANDY KREHBIEL

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