OKLAHOMA CITY - Saying a "misinformation campaign of sorts" has been conducted in recent days, a Senate budget leader is setting the record straight on the fate of community corrections and truth-in-sentencing legislation, and is promising to continue his efforts to increase compensation for sheriffs who participate in some kind of alternative sentencing program.
"We think we may have some latitude within the public safety budget to do something for sheriffs who want to be part of some kind of community corrections project," said Senator Cal Hobson, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary. "We're working on an initiative that will reward those law enforcement officials who are willing to look at the big picture on crime and punishment, and adopt a fiscally responsible, tough-but-realistic approach to incarceration."
The Senate budget leader began exploring possible funding options after the County Sheriff's Association derailed a bill on community corrections and truth-in-sentencing. Because those initiatives were killed and their cost-saving potentials lost, a companion measure --one that would have increased the compensation rate for sheriffs who house state inmates-- was shelved.
"Those three initiatives --truth-in-sentencing, community corrections and sheriff compensation-- are inexorably intertwined; you can't do one without the other," said Senator Hobson. "It's like the old three-legged stool analogy. You pull one leg out and the whole thing comes crashing down. That's what happened.
"Some of the news reports I've read have made it sound like we just pulled the rug out from under the county sheriffs without warning or reason, but that's just not the case. If anything, the sheriffs association helped orchestrate the collapse of the entire public safety package."
Had the sheriff's organization not killed the community corrections bill, it would have increased the time violent criminals serve behind bars while sending some non-violent offenders to alternative sentencing programs.
For example, the community corrections provision of the legislation called for non-violent offenders to be sentenced to punishments that were performed under supervision but outside a prison cell, a move to designed to reserve the state's limited and expensive prison space for the most violent offenders. In turn, under the truth-in-sentencing section of the bill, violent criminals (murder, rape, etc.) would serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
The alternative sentencing would have saved the state money on prison costs, allowing it to afford longer terms for violent criminals and to increase the compensation rate for county sheriffs who hold state inmates.
"We told them the only way we could increase their compensation rate was if we were able to save some money through a community corrections program. They indicated that they understood, and we proceeded from there," said Senator Hobson.
When the sheriffs killed community corrections and truth-in-sentencing in the House, however, they also killed the projected revenue savings that would have paid for both of those initiatives.
"Without the cost savings from community corrections, we can't afford to give the sheriffs the money they want. Instead, we're going to have to turn more and more cash over to the state prison system to house offenders, many of them non-violent, who could have worked off their punishment in the community at no cost rather than occupying a prison cell that taxpayers will fund to the tune of about $15,000 a year.
"We didn't have any other choice but to give the money to prisons after the sheriffs derailed community corrections and truth-in-sentencing. It was a public safety issue, and the sheriffs knew that. That's what makes their latest claims so surprising and so frustrating," said Senator Hobson.
The sheriffs have charged they were victims of politics, but the Lexington legislator says that is not the case.
"This isn't about politics, it's about protecting the public with a limited amount of resources. Everybody wants to keep the criminals locked up, but that costs money unfortunately, and as we all know, money is always in short supply."
The Legislature, according to the Senate budget leader, will try to pass the three-tiered program again next year.
"We're never going to get a handle on our prison problem until we attack community corrections, truth-in-sentencing and sheriff compensation in one fell swoop, and pass the proposals simultaneously. We'll try it again next year, we'll work with the sheriffs and hopefully we'll succeed."