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Editorial Roundup: Recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers

February 27, 2018

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Oklahoma newspapers:

Muskogee Phoenix. Feb. 26, 2018.

There have been multiple reports locally of threats against students or schools following a mass shooting at a Florida high school recently.

Law enforcement here takes each one of these threats seriously because lives could be at stake.

The full circumstances behind these threats have not been made public.

Whether those threats were legitimate or made by some kind of copycat looking for attention remains to be seen.

What is certain is that parents, educators, law enforcement and students are on edge.

That makes for a volatile mix that does not need to be stirred by teenagers who are acting out.

Parents should have a long conversation warning their children against making any kind of threat.

The deaths in Florida are a serious matter, and pranksters will find the justice system here has no sense of humor.

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Tulsa World. Feb. 27, 2018.

The recent groundbreaking of Tulsa Sobering Center marks a progressive arrangement to cut down jail costs and offer a lifeline to residents struggling with substance abuse.

The city of Tulsa is building the center on the property of the nonprofit 12&12, 6333 E. Skelly Drive. It’s a partnership of experienced social workers and Tulsa Police.

The center will have 42 beds — 25 for men and 17 for women — and will operate 24/7. It will only be available for people picked up for public intoxication, not more serious crimes, such as drunken driving.

With more than half of the municipal inmates at the Tulsa Jail booked for public intoxication at a cost of $69 a day, it makes financial sense to offer social supports over a cell.

The old way required Tulsa Police to spend up to two hours in booking, away from their regular patrols and availability for emergency calls. The arrest would not lead to treatment and potentially add to an already overburdened court system.

Once the Sobering Center opens in a few months, police will spend about 15 minutes at the facility, which will be staffed by mental health professionals. It gives a safe place for an intoxicated person to sober up and then be offered help.

This has been a missing link in the system for years, and we salute Mayor G.T. Bynum and 12&12 for making it happen.

12&12 has the infrastructure, expertise and community network to handle the new arrangement. The nonprofit’s recovery center offers short- and long-term detox treatments and a staff of 170, including psychiatrists, registered nurses and various counselors.

The sobering center makes good financial sense for the city and offers the hope for getting the people held there on a better track for the future.

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The Oklahoman. Feb. 27, 2018.

To comply with a 2 percent — $3.19 million — cut to its budget in the final four months of this fiscal year, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is freezing purchases of such things as computers and vehicles. This follows a recently announced freeze on hiring.

The latter is particularly significant, given how the state’s inmate population continues to grow and how difficult it is to move reform proposals through the Legislature.

We have noted our concerns about the prospects of reform bills produced last year by a governor’s task force on criminal justice reform. Several of the bills, after being bottled up by a former House member who was no fan of many reform efforts, ended up in a conference committee where they remain today.

The head of the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council, Kevin Buchanan, wrote recently in The Oklahoman that his group is seeking “common-sense modifications” to the bills now in committee “to ensure criminal justice reforms happen without jeopardizing public safety.”

His group also encourages more funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment, drug courts and diversion programs, and would like to see Oklahoma’s criminal provisions reclassified so crimes are grouped by their threat to the public, allowing a more uniform way to address an offender’s criminal history.

Buchanan wrote that ways need to be explored to “better transition truly low-level, nonviolent offenders into society,” something reformers have long sought.

Yet some of those who have sought change remain skeptical. Among them is Kris Steele, who as Oklahoma House speaker pursued sweeping criminal justice reform and who continues that effort as head of The Education and Employment Ministry, a nonprofit that helps ex-convicts re-enter society.

Steele contends that the impact of the DA’s proposed changes to the existing task force bills would only marginally impact projected inmate growth — reducing the prison population by about 1,500 when 7,200 beds are projected to be added by 2026.

A fact sheet from Steele highlighting the proposed changes to the various task force bills says that if no reforms are enacted, the inmate census, now at roughly 27,200, is projected to be 35,700 by 2026. Approval of the prosecutors’ proposals would result in the prison population standing at about 34,000, compared with roughly 26,500 if the task force recommendations were adopted.

Joe Allbaugh, head of the Department of Corrections, in November asked the Legislature for an additional $1 billion in the next budget year to build two medium-security prisons and to cover maintenance and repairs at existing lockups. “This budget represents exactly what our needs are right now,” he said.

Allbaugh has previously said Oklahoma in the next decade will need three new prisons, at a cost of at least $1.2 billion (plus $700 million in operating costs), if current inmate population growth projections come to pass. Steele contends the DA’s proposals do far too little to alter those projections.

Middle ground is difficult to find in this debate, but that must continue to be the goal. There must be agreeable ways available to safely and significantly temper Oklahoma’s all-too-high incarceration rate.

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