Criminal Justice

Adam Luck | August 20, 2015

Oklahoma Is Tough on Crime—But Are We Doing It Right?

Adam Luck

Oklahoma is tough on crime. We are tough on crime for good reason—to keep our communities safe. We administer sentences to criminals commensurate to their crime and we are not afraid to dedicate significant state resources towards public safety.

Oklahoma, like much of the United States, entered the tough-on-crime phase in the late eighties in response to the crime wave sweeping the nation. A specific solution was adopted by much of the United States for a specific problem. The best solution we had at the time was incarceration.

Nearly 30 years have passed and much of our criminal justice system remains the same. There is a time when reflection is a necessity; when assessment and analysis must inform policy much as it did three decades ago. The time has come to ask ourselves, “Are we doing it right?”

Answering this question first requires understanding the cost of current policies and the outcomes we have achieved. The Department of Corrections budget is the fourth-largest budget item in the state and one of only a handful of agencies that did not receive a 5 percent cut, but instead increased by $15 million for a total of $485.9 million for the coming fiscal year. This represents growth of more than 170 percent in corrections-related costs since 1994, according to the Urban Institute.

These costs will continue to grow. Admissions of new inmates are increasing while our release rate remains stagnant as a result of longer sentences, which leads to a growing inmate population. Additionally, the percentage of our inmates over the age of 50 has increased 26 percent since 2005—a statistic of particular consequence considering the state is responsible for all healthcare costs of this aging population.

As costs continue to grow, the Department of Corrections (DOC) is forced to choose between priorities. Our correctional facilities are filled to 116 percent capacity and staffed at 67 percent. Oklahoma ranks last in the nation for prison-staff-to-inmate ratios, with one staff per 11.7 inmates, more than double the national average of one staff per 5.5 inmates. Further illustrating this disparity, since 2003 the prison population in Oklahoma has grown by 13 percent while our correctional staff has dropped by 19 percent. The continually strained DOC budget results in longer hours and lower pay for staff, which contributes to a growing attrition rate and shrinking retention rate among these state employees.

Being tough on crime means being willing to ask whether or not we are doing it right—and changing course if the facts suggest that a change is necessary. Many states have demonstrated that specific, targeted reforms in sentencing, alternative programming, and reentry are the keys to success.

Cost is not the only factor suggesting we should reserve our most expensive correctional tool, incarceration, for those who need it most. We now have a better understanding of how to achieve public safety outcomes through alternatives that better address root causes of criminal behavior. Programming that addresses an offender’s mental health or substance abuse needs will serve our communities better by rehabilitating those that offer the best chance of becoming contributing members of our society, rather than sending them to prison where they will require more state resources and have a greater chance of returning to criminal behavior.

More than half of Oklahoma’s prison population consists of nonviolent offenders. Additionally, 27.4 percent of the prison population has been incarcerated for a drug-related offense. These numbers point to a growing subset of our prison population where significant gains can be made in saving state resources and making our communities safer.

At its core, being tough on crime means demanding the most effective solution to prevent and reduce crime. Tough on crime does not mean holding on to a particular tradition of punishment. In fact, it means quite the opposite; it means that we are willing to change and adapt policy when faced with facts that current policy does represent the best option to keep our communities safe and is not the most effective use of our resources.

For an example of what is possible, we can look to one of the many other states that have faced this challenge and made significant progress. In 2005, the state of Texas faced a projected growth of 15,000 new inmates in less than five years. The legislature and stakeholders within the state recognized that the correctional system was not achieving the outcomes they desired—especially not for the money they were paying.

IGovernor Rick Perryn 2007 a legislative package was passed and signed by Governor Rick Perry that included targeted sentencing reforms and developed alternatives to incarceration programs. The state has since realized more than $3 billion in savings, closed three state prisons and eight juvenile facilities, and achieved the outcomes of a well-functioning correctional system. The crime rate in 2013 was the lowest Texas had seen since 1968. Recidivism rates for offenders released from state prison has dropped 6.5 percent and parole revocation rates have dropped from 14.5 percent in 2004 to 6.5 percent in 2014.

Oklahoma has already taken important steps towards making these changes. The Justice Reinvestment Process marked the beginning of our work in this area. Since then, the legislature has passed several measures aimed at reducing the cost to the state and achieving better outcomes. Yet we have not seen the legislative reforms needed to achieve the gains made in states like Texas.

Many signs point to the 2016 legislative session as the best opportunity to make these changes. Both Senate President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman and Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman, who have been supportive of reform, will serve their final session in their leadership roles in 2016. It is unclear at this point who will be replacing them in these influential roles, much less whether or not they will be supportive of reform.

Governor Mary FallinAdditionally, Governor Mary Fallin continues to signal criminal justice reform as a top priority. The subcommittees on criminal justice reform created earlier this year will continue meeting throughout the year leading into the session. Gov. Fallin also recently issued a memorandum directing the Board of Corrections to amend state policy to allow offenders convicted of “85 percent crimes” (crimes that require the offender to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before having an opportunity for parole) to accrue early release credits during their sentence. A bill with similar intent failed to pass both houses in the previous two legislative sessions. Taking executive action on this policy once again demonstrated the governor’s intent to make significant progress in criminal justice reforms.

So, if being tough on crime means being willing to ask whether or not we are doing it right and acting if the facts that suggest a change is necessary, what should we do differently?

Many states have demonstrated that specific, targeted reforms in sentencing, alternative programming, and reentry are the keys to success.

We should consider amending our drug sentences to reflect the nature of the crime. We currently imprison people for more drug-related crimes, with lower weight thresholds, and for longer periods of time, than most other states. We must recognize that a prison bed, costing the state $18,476 per year, may not be the best solution for someone turning to crime to support a drug habit. We should be certain that these individuals could not be better served in a drug court, which costs the state $5,000 per year and often leads to lower recidivism rates. Stemming the flow of nonviolent drug offenders into Oklahoma’s prison system through sentencing reform and investing in alternative programming will go a long way in addressing our growing prison population.

Reforms targeting reentry should also be considered as a way to ensure those individuals released from state custody are prepared to become contributing, tax-paying members of society. 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.

In addition to these reforms, we must commit to taking a closer look at the criminal justice system in the months ahead, leading up to the legislative session. Being tough on crime is not just a saying or a way of thinking; it is a commitment we as Oklahomans have made to each other to keep our communities safe, demand the best solution and outcomes from our government, and change when necessary. It is time to ask ourselves if we are doing it right in Oklahoma—and if we cannot say yes, we must act.

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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