Implementing recent corrections reforms and alleviating Department of Corrections staffing struggles should both be a top funding priority next year, according to a House interim study conducted Thursday.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Jeff Hickman, who requested the study, said it is mutually beneficial for the state to adequately fund both initiatives.
“To do either without the other won’t get things where they ultimately need to go. Both should be top priorities going forward,” said Hickman (R-Fairview). “Being a conservative doesn’t mean spending no money; it means spending money wisely on core functions of government like public safety. This is a prime example of how we can make wise, conservative investments to make the system stronger and keep us safer.”
DOC officials on Thursday told the House Public Safety Committee that the agency will request an additional $12.2 million for compensation increases in fiscal year 2014. The agency will propose increasing classified staff salaries by 5 percent and increasing the entry level pay rate for correctional officers from $11.83 an hour to $14 an hour.
At the same time, the agency will also need between $6 million and $8 million for second-year implementation costs of the Justice Reinvestment reforms contained in House Bill 3052, which was signed into law in May.
The Justice Reinvestment legislation will eventually save the state an estimated $170 million over the next decade, according to an analysis of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system by the Council of State Governments, which has helped implement similar reforms in other states.
“There is a demonstrated need for raises, but funding raises without also funding the justice reinvestment reforms would just be a small bandage on a bigger wound,” Hickman said. “The good news is that funding these reforms will actually save DOC millions of dollars over time that could then be used for raises or other needs.”
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Corrections officials testified Thursday that inadequate compensation is increasingly causing corrections employees to leave for the private sector, particularly to companies driving the energy boom in western Oklahoma. Under current salaries, 29.7 percent of DOC staff qualify for food stamps and 85 percent qualify for school lunch program assistance. Under the proposed compensation increase, 9 percent would still qualify for food stamps and 79.5 percent would remain eligible for school lunch assistance.
“Going six years without any sort of compensation increase has taken its toll on our correctional officers. I hear over and over in exit interviews that salaries staying stagnant for so long is more of a deciding factor to leave than the amount of the salary itself,” said Warden Janice Melton, who runs Bill Johnson Correctional Center in Alva. “These officers just want some level of recognition that they are valued for the difficult, critical jobs they do running our prison system.”
The employee exodus has left state prisons significantly understaffed. The state penitentiary in McAlester, where the state’s most dangerous offenders are kept, currently has only 243 correctional officers – 157 short of the 400 it is authorized to employ, according to DOC.
“The staffing levels are downright dangerous, and they’re getting worse as employees leave for better pay elsewhere,” Hickman said.
Since FY 2003, DOC staffing has dropped 14 percent, from 4,666 to 4,009. During that same time, the number of offenders housed in DOC facilities has risen 11 percent, from 16,231 to 18,121.
“Both these trends are troubling, especially the unchecked growth in the prison population. It’s indicative of a system spiraling out of control,” Hickman said. “Correctional officers will continue to face this type of challenging, dangerous work environment unless policymakers stay committed to corrections reforms like Justice Reinvestment. Controlling the prison population helps control spending so policymakers can have the ability to send limited taxpayer resources where they are needed most.”