Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tough on Crime; Smart on Crime

By Senator Jay Paul Gumm, D-Durant

Hello again, everybody! A constant we face is the responsibility to keep law-abiding Oklahoma families safe from those who would harm them.

If you have read or heard the news recently, you know we again are facing a prison crisis. A crisis occurs when the Corrections Department does not have the resources to lock up all the criminals our state laws say deserve to be in prison.

Oklahoma is locking up new criminals faster than existing convicts are completing their sentences. Our prison system has reached 98 percent of its capacity. The director of the Corrections Department calls the situation “the most critical point in three decades” because there are so few options.

Some want to turn to private prisons to expand our capacity. That simply won’t work because the underlying problem still exists: more inmates than resources.

Should Oklahoma become dependent on private prisons to hold our inmates, there is nothing to prevent these private companies from hiking their rates to astronomical levels, making our problem even worse. To fall victim to that trap is simply poor public policy, and something I strongly oppose.

The governor has suggested using alternative means of punishment. He proposed a “mix of programs,” including more drug and alcohol treatment and an expansion of the tremendously successful “drug court” program. Also, the governor has said we need to increase the number of beds at the maximum security Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

On balance, those suggestions sound reasonable and deserve speedy consideration when the Legislature reconvenes in February. Most of us hope we get to wait that long before we have to pump more resources into prisons.

The same ingredients I wrote about last year that could lead to a devastating riot are in place again this year. We have extraordinarily hot temperatures and a system filled almost to capacity. We have made it this long without a riot by the grace of God, and the men and women of Corrections have done an amazing job with too few resources.

While we increased this year’s budget for the Department of Corrections, it already appears we will need to put even more dollars into the system when session begins next year just to stay where we are – and that is if nothing else happens to shake the delicate balance that exists.

For me, I believe one of the top priorities we have as a state should be to keep our families safe from those who would prey on them. That is why, in this column a year ago, I said I would support increased funding for the Department of Corrections. I make that pledge again this year.

Oklahoma families cannot afford for us to be soft on crime. Oklahoma taxpayers, however, have a right to expect that when we are spending their money, we be smart on crime.

Thanks again for reading the “Senate Minute,” have a great week, and may God bless you all.

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