Oklahoma County Jail Saga Needs Liberal Touch

Oklahoma County Jail by Corry Young on Flickr’s The Commons

The continuing Oklahoma County jail saga is a microcosm of failed conservative ideology when it comes to incarceration in this country.

The ideology is two-fold: Lock up as many offenders as possible in an effort to supposedly deter crime and don’t invest adequate resources into correctional facilities to ensure inmates feel the pain and punishment of their consequences. In a state like Oklahoma these days, Republicans often push the ideology, and many Democrats go along with it afraid to be seen as soft on crime.

The county jail, of course, is a county issue so it makes it seem less partisan than the correctional issues created by the state’s high incarceration rates, but the overall ideological framework underpins it all the same.

The U.S. Justice Department found 60 civil rights violations with the jail back in 2008, and essentially put county officials on notice that they needed to either fix the problems or face a federal takeover.

The county has, indeed, fixed most of the problems outlined in a 2008 report, which included high rates of violence between inmates and guards yet the basic design of the jail itself creates some of the problems. That means the county has to massively renovate the jail or build a new one, which makes the most sense. Each approach would cost millions upon millions of dollars and require some type of tax increase. The federal government, according to media reports, has apparently signaled it was moving forward with a lawsuit to force the issue.

In the past, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and other county officials have promoted a small increase in the county sales tax of only half-a-cent or less, but that hasn’t proven to be popular with voters. If the feds take over, homeowners would automatically face high property taxes to pay for the project. Something has to give eventually.

Conservatives, of course, love to point our their overall ideology is dictated by strict, fundamentalist readings of the U.S. Constitution, but the Eighth Amendment is clear: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” We might debate what constitutes an excessive bail or fine or cruel and unusual punishment, but the intention seems clear enough. The amendment establishes basic human rights for criminal offenders. The jail issue, then, is not going to go away, given the current federal involvement and the constitutional issues raised by the Eighth Amendment.

High incarceration rates here and elsewhere in the country come with a huge cost of taxpayer money. Conservatives will never solve their contradiction of voting to do things that cost a tremendous amount of money while cutting taxes at the same time. In fact, a more liberal approach to decrease incarceration rates of non-violent offenders would allow more money to be spent on education, which could lead to better personal decisions that lower the incarceration rate.

The point is that the solution to the county jail problem is a liberal one: Lower incarceration rates through drug courts and creative sentencing and vote to invest in a new jail through a small tax increase that allows for rehabilitation to reduce recidivism.

Spinning The Budget Cuts

This is (a) low budget artwork by Duncan Hull on Flickr The Commons

I’m sure some will see this argument as trivial, but Gov. Mary Fallin’s praise of next year’s fiscal year state budget seemed overly hyperbolic and ignored a couple of key points.

In a June 1 news release about the recent legislative session, Fallin noted the $7.1 billion approved budget was “a fiscally responsible blueprint.” She also made sure everyone knew just how much money is going to education in Oklahoma:

I’m proud legislators and I were able to pass a budget in challenging times that shields common education, our largest and one of our most important expenses, from budget cuts. Under this budget, approximately 51 cents of every dollar appropriated by state government will continue to go toward education. . . .

I’m assuming that “51 cents of every dollar” has clear evidence behind it, but what Fallin doesn’t mention in the news release is that Oklahoma from 2008 to 2014 cut education funding by 23.6 percent, the most in the nation. Shielding our K through 12 educational system from budget cuts is a lot different than really investing in education and raising teacher salaries from their dismal levels. Those low salaries have helped lead to a teacher shortage here. Fallin also mentions agencies that received funding boosts, but the budget also slashed some agencies by 7.25 percent and cut higher education by 3.5 percent, which could lead to tuition hikes. The budget also uses one-time money to make ends meet and that portends a potential for another budget shortfall crisis again next year.

I realize Fallin’s statement was typical rah rah, but it’s just this type of perfunctory rhetoric that inhibits change in how we fund the state’s most important core services.

I went through the release fairly thoroughly and even did a word search of “tax,” and I could find no mention of the income tax cut from 5.25 to 5 percent that is going into effect this coming January because of a flawed budget forecast triggering system. Some estimate that cut will cost the state more than $50 million this coming fiscal year. Meanwhile, the state is cutting higher education, slashing funding elsewhere and making a big deal out of the fact it didn’t cut common education. All that is part of the state’s “fiscally responsible blueprint.” Right.

Again, I understand that some end-of-the-legislative-session praising is customary, especially when you’re the de facto Republican Party leader in a state government completely dominated by Republicans, but Fallin puts an overly joyful spin on budget cobbled together with cuts and one-time money sources. That’s the reality.

State Law Now Prohibits City Fracking Bans

Fracking In Karnes County by Sean Paul Kelley on Flickr The Commons

The new law prohibiting cities from banning fracking within their jurisdictions violates the conservative ideology of promoting local government control and benefits oil and gas companies over the interests of homeowners and other residents.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed Senate Bill 809 into law Friday. It’s a bill that ensures oil and gas companies can drill within the limits of a municipality even if the people who live in that municipality don’t want them to do so. It other words, it takes away the right of individual citizens to protect their quality of life and personal welfare.

The bill came after the city of Denton, Texas voted to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in their city last year and as some people in Stillwater apparently contemplated a ban there. It was a preemptive strike by a Republican-dominated state legislature and government, but it hardly reflects the conservative mantra of individual determination.

In a news release, Fallin said the bill reaffirms “the Corporation Commission as the sole regulator of Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas industry,” noting the bill “prohibits municipalities from issuing moratoriums or bans on drilling while preserving their ability to adopt reasonable ordinances, rules and regulations concerning traffic issues, noise, fencing requirements and placing of drilling rigs.”

The basic official argument is that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission provides a needed consistency when it comes to drilling regulations that individual cities can’t provide. In her release, Fallin even mentioned how the commission was looking into the link between wastewater injection wells used in the fracking process and the dramatic surge in seismic activity here.

But that won’t mean much to homeowners suffering through the noise and traffic of a nearby fracking rig.

It might well be true that smaller cities lack a certain expertise in the engineering underlying the fracking process and its impact on the surrounding environment, but that simply doesn’t apply to a university city, such as Stillwater, or, say, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Norman. City officials and staff in those places either possess the knowledge or know where to seek the knowledge about fracking.

Centralizing regulations is problematic as well. An oil and gas company, for example, recently submitted a plan to frack near Lake Hefner, one of Oklahoma City’s main water supplies. The company withdrew the proposal because of a public outcry. This new law would seemingly make it more difficult to stop such projects under this philosophy of centralization.

Conservatives often cite “local control” and “individual rights” as values they support and bemoan what they see as a centralized, overreaching federal government. This bill contradicts those positions. If people in a city want to retain a certain quality of life and ban fracking near their homes, then let them do so. There remain plenty of places to frack for gas in this country.

As the country is discovering, so-called energy independence comes at a high cost, which includes earthquakes here and, as some environmentalists have long argued, water pollution. While the energy industry is vital to the state’s economy, there’s a breaking point in which its negative environmental impact outweighs the benefits. I think people are waking up to this basic point, especially in places like Texas and Oklahoma, which have experienced a fracking boom in recent years.

In the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking process, water laced with chemicals is injected by high pressure into underground rock formations that create fissures releasing gas and oil. The wastewater from that process is then injected again by high pressure into underground storage wells. Scientists now believe that it’s the wastewater injection well process that is triggering the surge in earthquakes here. Oklahoma led the lower 48 states in 2014 in the number of earthquakes registering 3.0 magnitude or higher.

The fracking boom here and elsewhere, often draped in the patriotic and geo-political language of “energy independence,” as I’ve mentioned, and “freedom” from the Middle East, is used by oil and gas companies to push against regulations. But the real cost of this country’s fracking boom is now becoming clear, and it’s happening, of course, on the local level where the environmental evidence mounts.

Syndicate content