Criminal Justice

Brian Maughan | June 1, 2016

Another Way to Trim Incarceration Costs

Brian Maughan


By Brian Maughan

As state policymakers work to reduce prison incarceration rates and their resulting costs, there is a second way to address this issue from the bottom up. Offenders whose crimes do not merit prison time are still clogging county jails across Oklahoma, driving costs at the local level. While legislators and the governor grapple with ways to trim prison populations, we already have a ready-made program in place to begin a similar local effort in our 77 counties.

An innovative new alternative-sentencing program helps offenders and taxpayers alike.

The prison system is reserved for convicted felons. State leaders have proposed a number of sentencing reforms, including the reclassification of some less serious crimes as misdemeanors. That will have an unintended consequence: additional crowding in county jails, which, in many counties, are already stretched to capacity.

So as we add more misdemeanors to the already lengthy list of offenses that can result in county jail sentences of up to one year, the savings incurred at the state level may not be fully realized, and may in fact be shifted to counties and cities. That’s why it is equally important to address sentencing reform at the local level.

Luckily we already have a proven answer in place. In 2010, I worked closely with Oklahoma County judges, the district attorney, and the public defender to create an innovative new program called SHINE, which stands for Start Helping Impacted Neighborhoods Everywhere.

Under SHINE, judges were encouraged to sentence low-level non-violent offenders to perform a specific number of hours of community service in lieu of jail time. With a daily incarceration cost of about $50, it’s easy to see how sentencing even a minority of offenders to community service would save substantial sums.

From its inception through early April of 2016, SHINE has enrolled 4,751 offenders who have performed more than 244,000 hours of community service. If those 4,751 offenders had each been sentenced to 30 days in jail—a common sentence for offenses at this level—the taxpayers would have shelled out more than $7.1 million to house, feed, and supervise them.

Including personnel to oversee SHINE crews and the equipment they use, it costs about $200,000 per year to operate SHINE.

My staff manages the SHINE crews five days a week. One crew is reserved for graffiti eradication, while a second performs assigned jobs like clearing brush, cleaning up public places like parks and school grounds, and even setting up chairs for public events. A third crew works full time to remove red cedar trees from public and private lands, reducing wildfire and drought hazards.

In one case SHINE crews worked for months cleaning up Crystal Lake Park in west Oklahoma City. The park had degenerated into a place for illegal dumping. SHINE hauled away some 3,400 tires and other debris, and the park is now a center for outdoor youth activities.

Not only does SHINE save jail costs, it also performs work for free that was previously the responsibility of municipalities and local schools. It even has a public safety impact; in several cases we were able to clean up hobo camps that had become sites for drug sales and prostitution.

SHINE has advantages for offenders and the taxpayers alike. Offenders sentenced to SHINE can arrange their hours flexibly, in many cases allowing them to maintain their jobs and family connections. And since they are not jail inmates, the county is not responsible for any medical care they might require.

Finally, many SHINE inmates have responded favorably to the program, noting that honest outdoor labor was far better than simply sitting in a crowded jail.

Since its creation SHINE has been expanded to allow family court judges to sentence deadbeat parents who are in arrears on child support to SHINE for a limited number of days each week until they provide proof of employment and the intention to meet their parental obligations. Other legislation permits judges to assess fines in many cases that will go directly to supporting the minimal SHINE operational costs.

Unfortunately, as successful as it has been in many ways, SHINE remains underutilized. We could have a strong alternative sentencing program under way in all 77 counties by now. And as state officials ratchet a number of former felony offenses down to misdemeanors, we’re going to need such programs at the local level even more.

Brian Maughan is a county commissioner in Oklahoma County.

Brian Maughan


Brian Maughan is a county commissioner in Oklahoma County.

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