The Oklahoma legislature is considering various bills to reduce the number of people who wind up in jails and prisons for non-violent offenses and to help people getting out of prison to avoid returning to crime. These reforms would help reduce incarceration while keeping communities safe. Unfortunately the measures are getting bogged down by a separate debate over funding district attorney offices.
First, a principle: There is no perfect amount of funding for any government agency. Claims about "fully funding" this or that are exercises in question begging. The reason we give the power of the purse to representatives in the legislature is because spending is always political, a matter over which reasonable people will disagree.
Another principle: Limited funding is not just the result of limited resources, it's also a way we limit power.
District attorneys play an essential role in the criminal justice system, a core function of government. No doubt they could put additional funding to good use. Certainly some offices are more efficient than others, and some have greater funding needs than others. But aside from reforms that specifically address fees that currently provide one of the funding streams for district attorneys, other reforms should move ahead without regard to funding debates.
Dana Weber, writing in the Tulsa World, expresses both the urgent need and the wait already endured.
Our incarcerated population continues to increase with unsustainable costs to taxpayers, communities and families. Our prisons are operating at 112 percent capacity, putting staff and prisoners at risk. Too many prisoners are facing long sentences for nonviolent offenses that are destroying their lives and the lives of their families. This is an urgent problem.
For 20 years, study after study of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system has made the same key recommendations: Reduce unnecessarily lengthy incarceration for low-level offenses, emphasize rehabilitation before retribution and improve public safety in the process. These recommendations are based on years of rigorous research.
Legislators should keep their eyes on the ball--criminal justice reform measures should not become hostages in a spending debate.