When Justin Jones started working for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in 1977, the agency had 4,200 inmates and a $22 million annual budget, reports the Associated Press. Jones, now the agency director, oversees about 26,000 inmates and an annual budget of more than $500 million. With the prison population bursting, legislators face hard choices about whether to build more prisons or take steps to reduce the number of inmates. The corrections agency is seeking a $47.2 million emergency appropriations to get by for the fiscal year that ends in June.
State Sen. Richard Lerblance, the head of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission and a member of the Senate subcommittee that funds corrections, said lawmakers can’t sweep the prison issue “under the carpet any longer. If we don’t take drastic measures,” he says, “we could be back in a situation where we’re under federal jurisdiction running our penal system. We definitely don’t want that.” The prison population saw a massive upward spike in 1996 when former Gov. Frank Keating eliminated early release programs after a murder spree by Lamonte Fields, who had just been released from prison. “Fields has been called the $100 million man, because that’s how much we spend on private prisons now,” said K.C. Moon of the Criminal Justice Resource Center. “One person’s actions caused the abandonment of otherwise successful programs.” In addition, “Oklahoma is notorious for taking lower-level crimes and calling them felonies,” he said.