Oklahoma inmates who believe they were wrongly convicted of a violent crime may soon have a new tool available to help prove their point.
The House gave its approval this week to House Bill 1068, which would let those serving sentences of 25 years or more petition the sentencing court for DNA testing. Oklahoma is the only state without such a law.
Under HB 1068, once the state responds to an inmate’s request, the sentencing court would hold a hearing to determine whether to order DNA testing. The bill guards against the courts being flooded with requests by requiring that certain criteria be met.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, and Sen. James Halligan, R-Stillwater. It gained the support of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which would have a hand in the testing, as well as a panel of attorneys that studied wrongful convictions.
About a dozen Oklahoma inmates have been freed as a result of forensic DNA testing in the past two decades. If this bill helps free even one innocent person, it will have been worthwhile.
The bill now heads back to the Senate, which should send it to Gov. Mary Fallin for her signature without delay.
Justin Jones has a mess on his hands.
As director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Jones oversees the agency charged with watching an ever-growing prison population, and doing so with too-few prison guards. That dynamic contributes to brawls such as the one this week involving about 30 inmates at the Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown.
It was the latest of many violent incidents behind bars in the past year. Prison guards are concerned for their safety, the head of the Oklahoma Corrections Professions says, and prisons are “losing people like crazy everywhere” because of low pay and job conditions.
Additional funding would help, and Jones has regularly asked the Legislature for more. But bookkeeping concerns have become a big problem. The Oklahoman recently obtained documents showing that the amount of money held in two DOC revolving accounts was significantly greater than what the agency reported to the governor for her budgeting purposes.
Preston Doerflinger, the governor’s chief budget writer, says DOC has clear needs “but the problem is when you’ve got monies sitting in revolving accounts that appear to not be accurate and that they’re not utilizing appropriately, then how best are we to know and what confidence are we to have in taking into consideration the need for additional resources?”
Good questions. Until they’re answered sufficiently, Jones’ already tough job will only get more difficult.
We’ve previously praised SHINE (Start Helping Impacted Neighborhoods Everywhere), a program launched by Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan that sentences low-level offenders to remove graffiti, haul away trash and clear brush in blighted areas.
The program saves the county money by easing crowding at the county jail and providing free labor for jobs that otherwise would be done by county work crews.
State lawmakers apparently see the value of the program, because they’ve approved a new law extending the program to deadbeat parents. Under House Bill 2166, courts can require individuals who owe child support to work two eight-hour days per week in programs like SHINE.
“Working two days a week picking up litter or painting over graffiti might just provide the motivation some of these nonpaying parents need,” Maughan said. We certainly hope so. If not, at least the community will be cleaner as a result.
Justin Jones’ plea for help went nowhere with the governor’s office.
Jones, head of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, asked for an additional $66.7 million for the next fiscal year to help deal with prison crowding and to try to boost pay for his workers. Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposed budget includes only a $1 million bump for the DOC, and Fallin didn’t devote even a sentence about corrections in her State of the State speech.
Perhaps that’s because she signed a prison reform bill last year. But there’s been little buy-in from the groups involved in making that plan work.
Fallin’s budget chief suggested that Jones is overstating his needs. Few agency heads ever get all the money they ask for, nor do they expect to. But there’s no overstating the fact that our prisons are bumping up against capacity and will continue to do so, creating a dangerous situation for workers and inmates.
As the saying goes, timing has a lot to do with the success of a rain dance. That’s especially true of tax proposals.
Oklahoma County officials had planned to submit a $350 million jail proposal this spring, but decided to delay that action. Officials worried that placing the issue on the ballot at the same time as school board elections could hurt turnout for either the tax question or the board races.
Regardless of timing, the half-cent sales tax increase is likely to face resistance from voters. And regardless of timing, the current jail will remain inadequate.
Although officials have addressed most jail critiques raised by the federal Justice Department in 2007, the remaining problems require major structural changes. If the facility isn’t replaced, it may be just a matter of time before the federal government takes it over.
We like the approach being taken by Marc Dreyer, chairman of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, on the issue of inmates being considered for early parole.
The board’s previous practice of not clearly indicating on its agendas which inmates were being considered for early parole or commutation resulted in a criminal investigation by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.
Last month, the board discussed changing its procedures. This week, Dreyer said the board wouldn’t make any changes for several months, in order to allow folks plenty of time to register their thoughts. That’s a smart move.
Citizens can take Dreyer up on his offer by emailing comments to email@example.com or mailing them to Tracy George, General Counsel, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, First National Center, 120 N Robinson Ave. Suite 900W, Oklahoma City, 73102.
In just three months, voters in Oklahoma County could be asked to approve a 10-year, half-cent sales tax to build a new jail.
The head of a committee formed to plan the adult-juvenile complex says the vote could be held as early as March. The price tag is roughly $350 million.
County Commissioner Ray Vaughn says if the plan is approved, officials would look for enough land to build a sprawling one-story complex. The current jail, opened in 1991, stands 13 stories and was the subject of a harsh critique by the U.S. Justice Department five years ago. Most of the problems outlined in that report have been addressed, but Sheriff John Whetsel says some deficiencies can only be fixed with a major remodeling or a new jail.
The present jail is a problem, has been for a long time. A March election doesn’t allow much time to convince the public to pay for a new one, but then, there’s probably no perfect time to make such a request.