Criminal Justice

Adam Luck | February 1, 2016

Oklahoma Prison Reforms a Must in 2016

Adam Luck

Most Oklahomans are aware of the problems facing our prison system. It’s growing every year because we’re consistently bringing in more people than we are releasing, with receptions in 2014 totaling 10,720 and releases totaling 8,958.

Our prison facilities are overcrowded. They are currently at 104.2 percent operational capacity, which includes all the common areas that have been outfitted with additional beds. Our facilities are staffed at less than 67 percent, which, according to a 2013 survey, earned Oklahoma the distinction of having the worst staff-to-inmate ratio in the country. An Associated Press investigation revealed that Oklahoma led the nation with 39 prison inmate homicides during the period from 2001 to 2012, a rate that was more than triple the national average.

Over the last 20 years, our corrections budget has grown 172 percent, from $172 million in 1994 to $474 million in 2014. Over the same period, our violent crime rate has gone from below the national average in 1994 to well above it in 2014. The property crime rate in Oklahoma has not only remained above the national average, but the difference between the two averages has increased. While our violent crime and property crime rates have slowed along with those of the nation, they are slowing at a much lower rate (by 34 percent and 33 percent, respectively) compared to the national decline of 48 percent for violent crime and 41 percent for property crime. All of this means we are spending more money for comparatively worse outcomes.

Consider also the people we are spending this money on. In 2014, 52 percent of Oklahoma’s prison population was there for a nonviolent offense. Half of those nonviolent offenders were imprisoned for a drug-related crime. Additionally, one in three Oklahoma inmates currently exhibits signs of mental illness. Given the high cost of incarceration in our state and the less than desirable outcomes, we must consider if this is the best use of these resources. We can continue to spend a per-person average of $18,467 per year on incarceration, or we can consider investing in alternative options that could better address the underlying mental health or substance abuse issues. The latter would be much more effective at achieving the ultimate goal: preventing repeat criminal behavior—hence the word “corrections.”

We must also take into account the societal impact of who we incarcerate in Oklahoma. Our highest-in-the-nation female incarceration rate and fourth- highest male incarceration rate mean that children who are likely already at risk are losing parents. According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives than peers without incarcerated parents. The data on who we incarcerate also show a stark racial disparity: African Americans make up 7 percent of Oklahoma’s population but represent 28 percent of our incarcerated population. The prevalence of incarceration among black males in Oklahoma is four times the rate of white males.

If this does not represent the kind of Oklahoma we desire then we must do something different. Changing this system has taken and will continue to take much time and energy. What can be done this legislative session to make progress on this issue and move us closer to a criminal justice system that reflects the values we hold as Oklahomans?

Governor Mary Fallin has been working to answer just that question. The first executive order she issued in her second and final term established the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Reform Steering Committee, which was composed of the Governor, President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, Speaker Jeff Hickman, Attorney General Scott Pruitt, former Director of the Department of Corrections Robert Patton, and the Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Terri White. After its first meeting, this committee created four subcommittees to carry out the policy formation task of this process. The four subcommittees focused on four main areas: policing, treatment, sentencing, and programs and reentry.

The subcommittees gathered 32 professionals and government officials from across the state and conducted a total of 19 meetings from May to November of 2015. Each subcommittee drafted policy recommendations in its area of expertise with a focus on improving the criminal justice system in a fiscally restrictive environment. The chair of each subcommittee presented its findings and recommendations directly to the Governor, then to the entire committee when it was convened again in early November. After hearing all of the recommendations, each committee met again on December 8 to discuss the recommendations that would require a legislative component and subsequently submitted its final recommendations as a committee to the Governor’s office.

The Oklahoma Criminal Justice Reform Steering Committee process brought together a wide range of individuals from across the political spectrum to talk about how we can improve our criminal justice system. In the 2016 legislative session, Governor Fallin will likely pursue implementing the recommendations that have come out of this committee process. These recommendations will represent the best possible options for making progress in creating a more effective and efficient criminal justice system in Oklahoma.

Sentencing Reforms

Recommendations that should warrant support focus on sentencing reforms, specifically on nonviolent property and drug crimes. The Department of Corrections estimates that we bring in 3,000 to 5,000 inmates every year for nonviolent felony property or drug possession crimes, with around 1,200 of those inmates representing pure growth from one year to the next. Right now in Oklahoma, if you steal something worth $499 you will be charged with a misdemeanor and likely pay a fine and spend time in the county jail. If you cross the $500 threshold, you will be charged with a felony and likely face a prison sentence. Increasing the felony property crime threshold from $500 to something that better reflects what we think warrants the stigma of a felony would be a significant step in the right direction. For comparison, the same felony property crime threshold in Texas currently stands at $2,500, meaning a felon would need to steal five times what he was convicted for in Oklahoma to receive the same conviction in Texas.

A felony drug possession conviction in Oklahoma will result in a mandatory two years in prison but could be up to 10 years in prison. The second felony conviction also carries a mandatory two-year sentence with the maximum of a life prison sentence. The third felony offense requires six years in prison and could also result in a life prison sentence. Without causing harm to another, an Oklahoman could be two felony drug possession convictions away from spending his or her life in prison.

Statutes such as these that require mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, with no option to take into account the character, circumstances, or rehabilitative needs of the defendant, are driving the growth of our prisons. A 2006 study by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center underscored the surprising impact of these felony thresholds: it is estimated that 1 in 12 Oklahoma adults have been in prison or on probation for a felony conviction.

Other Reforms

Reforms targeting reentry should also be considered as a way to ensure that individuals released from state custody are prepared to become contributing, tax-paying members of society. As I wrote in these pages in September 2015, “post- release supervision is a critical component for individuals being released from prison. Currently, more than 50 percent of the 8,000 inmates released from state custody every year in Oklahoma return to the community without any form of supervision. We must do more to provide a reentry accountability structure at the most critical time during the reintegration process.

“The most significant roadblocks to reentry are employment, housing, and transportation. Releasing an individual from prison without any tangible skill and with no employment prospects almost guarantees a return to crime. State employers can do more to offer opportunities to those caught up in the wide net of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system and employers should be protected from liability when they do hire individuals with criminal records. The ability to obtain a driver’s license is critical for a successful reentry. Statutes should be amended to reflect that many crimes have nothing to do with operating a motor vehicle and therefore should not restrict an individual’s ability to obtain a license upon serving their debt to society.”

It is time to be more critical of how we are spending our scarce resources and the outcomes we are achieving. We should demand more efficiency and effectiveness. After all, we spend close to a half a billion of our tax dollars on corrections annually, and in return we receive nearly 9,000 Oklahomans back into our communities every year. We must answer critical questions. Are we preparing these individuals to reenter successfully or are we preparing them for an inevitable return to prison? Are we willing to endure the cost to our families and communities for these policies, especially given that they do not deliver as promised? Should these Oklahomans have been in prison to begin with?

In addition to the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Reform Steering Committee, others are taking note of the problems we have created and are beginning to act. In a public forum in November, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce announced criminal justice reform as a top priority for 2017, with the ultimate goal of solving the Oklahoma County jail crisis not just by building a new jail, but through attempting to address the systemic issues that drive the need for a larger jail.

As awareness grows, so too will the political capital to define our decisions in terms other than “tough” or “soft” on crime. The work set before us now is to decide what the next best step is for Oklahoma to take as we strive for progress on an issue that deeply affects our state, our communities, and our families.

OCPA research fellow Adam Luck is the Oklahoma state director for Right on Crime, an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation developed to help advance conservative principles in criminal justice reform. An Oklahoma native, Luck is an Air Force veteran and graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Adam Luck

OCPA Research Fellow

OCPA research fellow Adam Luck is the Oklahoma state director for Right on Crime, an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation developed to help advance conservative principles in criminal justice reform. An Oklahoma native, Luck is an Air Force veteran and graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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