The state Pardon and Parole Board could become part of the Department of Corrections
By Tim Talley
OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislation asking voters to merge the state Pardon and Parole Board with the Department of Corrections was approved by the Oklahoma House Tuesday as lawmakers search for ways to save taxpayer dollars and address a massive shortfall in next year’s budget.
House members voted 64-30 for the measure and sent it to the Senate for consideration in spite of concerns by some that placing the Pardon and Parole Board under the umbrella of the Corrections Department might affect the board’s independence and impartiality when considering inmate parole requests.
The measure’s author, House Speaker Chris Benge, said the Corrections Department and Pardon and Parole Board have similar functions and that merging them would save between $200,000 and $400,000 a year.
“This is an option to try to save some money for the state,” the Tulsa Republican said.
But Rep. Paul Roan, D-Tishomingo, said the board might be pressured to parole more inmates when state prisons are near capacity.
“There would be some inference there that some impartiality would be lost,” said Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City.
“I don’t see any pressure other than what there already is,” Benge said. “They have to both manage the prison population together.”
Benge said budget woes have forced lawmakers to look for ways to reduce the size and cost of state government, including consolidating agencies. For the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, lawmakers will have about $5.4 billion to spend, which is $1.2 billion less than they appropriated last year.
“A $1.2 billion shortfall is daunting. If we do nothing, I think the taxpayers will be very disappointed,” Benge said.
But Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, noted that the merger would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment in November and the state would see no immediate savings.
“This bill doesn’t do anything to solve our financial problems,” Reynolds said.
Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, said the state could save far more by releasing some nonviolent offenders from state prisons.
A spokesman for the Corrections Department, Jerry Massie, said the agency has not taken a position on the proposal. Pardon and Parole Board Director Terry Jenks did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.