Criminal Justice

Jonathan Small & Trent England | February 1, 2017

Oklahoma’s Prison Crisis: The Enormous Cost of Doing Nothing

Jonathan Small & Trent England

Oklahoma’s prisons are in a state of emergency—fiscally and literally. Already dramatically over capacity, Oklahoma’s prison population is projected to grow by 25 percent over the next decade, at a cost of nearly $2 billion to taxpayers.

Since it’s unlikely the government or taxpayers are willing or able to come up with that $2 billion, one of two things will likely happen: Oklahoma’s prisons will break—a truly frightening prospect for public safety—or Oklahoma will fix the criminal justice system that is breaking its prisons.

The conservative, responsible, morally sound decision is to fix the criminal justice system.

Conservatives have long focused on personal responsibility and accountability for individuals who break the law. In recent years, conservatives nationally have championed responsibility and accountability for government when making criminal justice policy because of the enormous cost of incarceration to taxpayers and families.

Conservative criminal justice policy is, at its core, a return on investment question: What return are taxpayers getting for the money they spend on prisons?

For Oklahoma taxpayers, the return on their prison investment is negative. At a time when crime rates continue to fall both statewide and nationally, Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, 70 percent higher than the national average. Yet Oklahoma is not 70 percent safer than the rest of the country.


Oklahoma is locking up more of its citizens than almost anyone else with little but mounting bills and overflowing prisons to show for it. Most states have found a better approach. So can Oklahoma.

More than 30 states across the country, including conservative ones like Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Dakota, and South Carolina, decreased prison populations and crime between 2009 and 2014. In contrast, Oklahoma saw a nine percent increase in its prison population and a 20 percent increase in annual prison admissions since 2011.

The reason? Unlike most states, Oklahoma’s prison system is overflowing with nonviolent offenders. Fully 75 percent of Oklahoma’s inmates were sentenced for nonviolent offenses. These are not hardened criminals. More than half of those sentenced for nonviolent offenses have zero or one prior felony convictions, and the vast majority have no history of violent crime.

Oklahoma continues locking up low-level nonviolent offenders as felons despite criminological research that shows that this approach is ineffective. In fact, for some offenders, including drug offenders and first-time offenders, prison actually increases the likelihood of reoffending.

Aside from the problem that prison growth poses for taxpayers, these statistics reveal troubling government overreach into the lives of Oklahomans who are struggling to treat their addictions and get back on their feet. While the recent passage of State Question 780 was a step in the right direction, this policy change will only slow the growth of Oklahoma’s prison population. Along with the reforms passed in the 2016 legislative session, State Question 780 reduced the growth by 3,000 beds out of 10,500 originally projected over the next decade. Many low-level, addiction-driven drug and property crimes will continue to drive prison growth without further reform.

In response to ongoing overcrowding and dramatic growth projections, the Corrections Department requested almost $1.65 billion from the state for next fiscal year, which would be a tripling of the agency’s budget. Of that $1.65 billion, $850 million would build or lease two 2,000-bed medium security prisons, one for males and one for females. An additional prison would be needed by 2022 for continued growth, as shown in the nearby graph of the projected population.
A decade ago, Texas was facing the same situation.


Instead of asking taxpayers for more money for prisons, Texas invested in evidence-based alternatives for nonviolent offenders, with a focus on recidivism reduction rather than incarceration. Since Texas made this change in 2007, its recidivism rate is down 25 percent, crime rates are at the lowest level since 1973, and nearly $2 billion was saved in averted prison costs. Tough-on-crime states like Texas have demonstrated there is clearly a better way to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders.

This is a critical time for Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. If the state continues to lock up the wrong people at the rate it is today, Oklahoma will pay deeply—both fiscally and morally.

Hoping to curb these fiscal and societal costs, Governor Mary Fallin established the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Task Force to promote public safety while reducing the prison population. This group brings together the full spectrum of criminal justice stakeholders, including representatives from the business and faith communities, law enforcement, legislators, judges, district attorneys, agency heads, and advocates for crime victims.

Undoing a crisis 30 years in the making will not be easy, but continued budget challenges and an ever-growing prison population do not give state leaders the luxury of a slow, incremental change. Knowing Oklahoma must act aggressively now to avert crisis, the task force will issue recommendations in time for legislation to be considered in the 2017 session.

In next month’s issue of Perspective, we’ll have an analysis of the Task Force’s proposed recommendations and their potential impact.

Jonathan Small, CPA, serves as President at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Previously, he served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. He holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

Trent England serves as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he also is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for the Advancement of Liberty and directs the Center for the Constitution & Freedom and the Save Our States project. He also hosts a radio program, The Trent England Show, from 7-9 a.m. every weekday on Oklahoma’s AM 1640, “The Eagle.”

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

Trent England David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England

David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.

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