NORMAN — The backlog of sentenced state prisoners in county jails like Cleveland County’s is a result of failed past leadership in the Department of Corrections, House Speaker T.W. Shannon told a Norman civic club audience Thursday.
The Lawton legislator, who will preside over his second legislative session in February, said private prisons could hold another 2,400 prisoners. Cleveland County’s F. DeWayne Beggs Detention Center had 492 inmates Thursday, with 156 of them awaiting a state prison bed.
He said the Department of Corrections leadership is changing and a new director will be named. Past director Justin Jones has expressed concern about over-reliance on private prisons in the state.
Shannon said private prisons can help the state solve temporary overcrowding issues, but long term, the state needs to look at doing a better job of preventing and treating drug addictions.
“We’ve got too many people addicted to illicit and prescription drugs,” Shannon told the Norman Rotary Club. He said the notion that first-time offenders are being sent to prison is simply not true.
“It’s not their first rodeo,” he said.
Shannon outlined some of last session’s high points as well as goals for this year. He said the state is doing relatively well, compared to the rest of the country.
Lawmakers finished their work early and passed a balanced budget as required by the state’s Constitution.
Shannon cited workers’ compensation reform as the top issue addressed this past session, even though a state Supreme Court ruling forced them to reconvene and pass the legislation again.
He claimed that the move from an “adversarial system to an administrative system” will save businesses 15 percent to 20 percent in premiums. On tax reform, he said lawmakers lowered the state income tax rate over the next few years without wrecking state government.
Pension reform will be addressed this year, with Oklahoma facing a $11 billion unfunded liability. Lawmakers have made changes to reduce that but still face an unsustainable model.
“There’s a reason you folks in the private sector did away with them,” he said of traditional pensions. “They’re unsustainable.”
He suggested younger workers prefer a 401K-style retirement plan that is portable.
On judicial reform, Shannon repeated his concern that the state’s Supreme Court judges should face term limits, a proposal opposed by the state judiciary and the bar association.
“I think it’s time that we explore term limits for our Supreme Court justices,” Shannon said.
On state employee compensation, Shannon acknowledge the study delivered to the governor outlining discrepancies between state pay and private sector pay. He said the state continues to set workers’ pay based on longevity in a position and not on abilities.
“We need to move out of that 19th century model,” he said.
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