Ray Carter | September 16, 2022
Experts say more police, diversion programs, can lower crime
Oklahoma incarcerates more people per capita than most states yet still has some of the worst crime rates. Experts told lawmakers they can drive down both statistics by, in part, increasing the number of police on the street and boosting the use of diversion programs for lower-tier offenders.
“The severity of the sentence is not what matters,” said Jeremiah Mosteller, a senior policy analyst with Americans for Prosperity. “It’s the certainty of actually being punished.”
He said Americans for Prosperity believes greater police presence is part of the solution.
“We want to see more officers on the street,” Mosteller said. “Because if people are getting away and not getting caught for crimes, that means that they realize that there’s not going to be accountability, and accountability is important. And so we need to take a hard look at where we’re investing the state’s resources, and that should be towards the front end and putting more police officers on the streets and focusing on those communities with high crime versus imposing severe sentences.”
Marilyn Davidson, Oklahoma state director for Right On Crime, called for similar action.
“First and foremost, we should focus on directing more resources towards law enforcement,” Davidson said.
She said the state should also increase funding for truancy officers and social workers to handle much of the work currently offloaded onto police. Davidson also called for increased use of diversion and alternative-sentencing programs for many criminals.
“This will allow our police to actually focus on police work and preventing crime,” Davidson said. “However, this approach requires long-term vision, patience, and understanding of the justice system, rather than a knee-jerk reaction and a response of throwing more people in prison.”
Damion Shade, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, noted that Oklahoma’s prison population is far larger per-capita than most states because Oklahoma imposes longer sentences than other states impose for the same crimes.
“People in Oklahoma spend around 90 percent longer for things like larceny, theft, and fraud, 105 percent longer for drug sales, and 115 percent longer for motor-vehicle theft than other states,” Shade said.
He said those longer sentences have not translated into lower crime rates.
“For 30-plus years, Oklahoma has been an outlier in these categories and where has it left us?” Shade said. “We have a violent-crime rate that is 15 percent higher than the national average. We have a property-crime rate that is 38 percent higher than the national average. And we have a burglary rate that is 95 percent—I will repeat—95 percent higher than the national average.”
Kaitlin Owens, deputy director of advocacy for the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Nolan Center for Justice, urged lawmakers to pass a felony-reclassification bill like this year’s SB 1646, saying Oklahoma is one of only eight states to operate without such a system in place. (While SB 1646 passed the Oklahoma Senate, it did not receive a hearing in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.)
Davidson said Right on Crime believes current sentencing requirements for the most dangerous crimes such as murder, for which inmates are required to serve 85 percent of their sentence, should be maintained.
However, for lower-tier crimes she said mandatory sentencing requirements should be scrapped in many cases, saying such requirements strip judges of discretion and result in far longer sentences than national norms.
Oklahoma’s current system has resulted in a state population where as many as one in three adults has been convicted of a crime.
“The best estimate that we have is that about 1.1 million Oklahomans have a criminal record,” Mosteller said.
According to the U.S. Census, just over 3 million Oklahomans are age 18 and older.
Mosteller noted research indicates 50 percent of ex-convicts remain unemployed four years after their release, due in part to state regulations that bar their employment in many jobs. He said legislators should consider repealing some of those restrictions.
“Some of these barriers are justified by public safety. There are legitimate public-safety concerns that we need to consider when we’re thinking about these laws,” Mosteller said. “But some of these laws are purely arbitrary and just serve as barriers that don’t actually improve public safety.”
Officials urged lawmakers to devote more funding to diversion programs and also to prison programs that help address drug addiction, emotional problems, and job skills prior to a convict’s release.
But Justin Wolf, chief administrator of communications and government relations for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, told lawmakers there simply isn’t time to provide all those programs to a significant share of inmates.
“When we look at our statistics, for example on persons who are convicted of sex offenses, a large number of those persons are only given one year in the custody of the Department of Corrections,” Wolfe said.
He also said prison sentences do appear to have a deterrent effect.
“Right now we have the lowest recidivism in the country at 17.3 percent,” Wolf said. “So four out of five inmates aren’t coming back into our facilities for a new crime within three years of their discharge.”
Ted Woodhead, inspector general for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, also noted that many inmates remain involved in crime even behind bars.
Woodhead said his office has had 598 cases presented so far this year. The agency has seized more than 34,000 pills that were being smuggled, or had been smuggled, into state prisons, along with 644 pounds of methamphetamine and 598 pounds of marijuana. The agency has also seized more than 4,000 contraband phones so far this year.
“We find a lot of times that we’ll release an inmate, and the same day we’re re-arresting him because he went to the bus stop, got picked up, comes back, and tries to make what we consider a ‘drop’ inside the prison,” Woodhead said.
He said contraband smuggling and violence go hand in hand in prison.
“Everything violent is driven, almost, by contraband,” Woodhead said. “So if you see assaults on inmates, you see assaults on the outside, those are driven from contraband, from not paying your debts.”
He said there have been 279 serious inmate-on-inmate assaults so far this year.
State Sen. Dave Rader, who requested the study, said state officials must find ways to lower crime and address the size of the prison population.
“We want to provide for a safer Oklahoma,” said Rader, R-Tulsa. “We know the data says a properly assessed and administered drug treatment for our prisons helps. We know we can look at alternative sentences. We know that we can shorten sentences. These all might help us out with our incarcerated.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.