Criminal Justice

Michael Carnuccio | September 18, 2015

Free Market Friday: Doing justice

Michael Carnuccio

When a person gets convicted of a crime, how much time should he or she spend in prison? When talking about Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, how do we define and measure success?

To their credit, many Oklahoma policymakers are asking these questions. The public got a glimpse of the debate last week, when the Oklahoma Board of Corrections approved Gov. Mary Fallin’s recommendation to allow certain inmates to earn early release credits throughout their time in state prisons.

On one hand, this is a minor change that brings state practice into line with state law. It might seem obvious that when punishing people for breaking the law, the state itself has a duty to follow the law. Nevertheless, a few legislators and prosecutors attacked the board and governor because the change will result in some prisoners serving slightly less time in prison.

That debate should take us back to our first question: How much time should a person spend in prison for a particular criminal offense? Many people need to be locked up, both as punishment and as a way to get them off the streets for public safety’s sake. Yet many offenders wind up in prison for nonviolent crimes that represent little or no threat to the larger community. Warehousing these Oklahomans costs millions of taxpayer dollars every year.

The group Right On Crime is working to bring balance to this debate (disclosure: at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, we helped bring the effort to our state). If Oklahoma could reduce the percentage of population we have in prison merely to the national average, the group points out, we would save about $100 million annually.

Even in cases of serious crimes, nearly all offenders are eventually released back into our communities. We should reject political arguments that suggest we can simply lock them up and throw away the key. Instead, we need to get serious about what goes on in our prisons and when prisoners re-enter society. One measure of success should be whether we are actually steering these Oklahomans away from a return to crime and toward a productive life.

In fiscal terms, this means turning tax consumers into taxpayers. In human terms, it means a safer Oklahoma for all of us.

Michael Carnuccio

Former OCPA President

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