Jonathan Small & Trent England | March 1, 2017
Oklahoma’s prison crisis: Working towards a solution
Jonathan Small & Trent England
By Jonathan Small and Trent England
Last month in these pages, we explored the enormous cost of Oklahoma’s state prison system and the extraordinary growth in new prisoners that will require adding more prisons in the next two years. This month, we look towards a solution.
Thirty years of short-sighted criminal justice policy have made Oklahoma’s prison system what it is today: dramatically overcrowded and growing at an alarming rate. Left unchecked, growth in the prison population will hold the state hostage for almost $2 billion, the cost of three new prisons over the next 10 years. As crime rates continue to fall in states that have reduced their prison populations, Oklahoma’s leaders are asking hard questions about policies that have been the foundation of the state’s criminal justice system for decades.
Governor Mary Fallin created the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force and charged it with increasing public safety while reducing the prison population and continuing to hold offenders accountable for their actions. The Task Force—made up of representatives from the business community, law enforcement officials, legislators, judges, district attorneys, agency heads, an advocate for crime victims, a public defender, and a doctor who treats addiction—responded to the charge by conducting an intensive examination of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system as well as criminological research on correctional best practices.
The Task Force focused its policy development efforts on addressing the nonviolent offenders who make up 75 percent of Oklahoma’s prison admissions. Their crimes are largely driven by addiction and they often suffer from untreated mental illness. For these individuals, prison can actually increase their risk of recidivism; comprehensive supervision and treatment in the community are both more effective and significantly cheaper.
After seven months, the Task Force has put forward 27 recommendations that target sentencing, community supervision, release and reentry, support for victims of crime, and oversight and performance measures.
The sentencing recommendations focus on drug and property crimes, adjusting penalties and creating tiered systems of weights and property values designed to punish serious conduct more harshly and to distinguish addiction-driven conduct from profiteering. The recommendations also expand alternatives to incarceration, giving judges and prosecutors more options to divert people from incarceration to treatment and supervision.
The release recommendations focus on the parole process, streamlining parole for compliant, nonviolent offenders and creating an evidence-based case-planning process for all Department of Corrections (DOC) inmates. The recommendations also create a geriatric parole process for the lowest-risk and most expensive inmates, and enhance accountability and transparency in the general parole process.
The supervision recommendations focus on aligning Oklahoma’s supervision systems with evidence-based practices, including assessing a person’s risk to reoffend as well as the causes of this risk, graduated responses to misconduct rather than the immediate “heavy stick” of imprisonment, and effective case management. The recommendations also create a certificate of rehabilitation and expungement process to help offenders get back to work, and establish provisions to minimize financial barriers to successful reentry.
The recommendations relating to victims of crime include the creation of specialized training for the supervision of domestic violence offenders and more effective law enforcement, and advocate responses to domestic violence situations through training and certification.
These recommendations are now being advanced to the legislature. Lawmakers will determine whether Oklahoma will seize this opportunity, or will face the $1.9 billion price tag of continuing to do business as usual. If the legislature adopts this package in full, the reforms would reduce the projected prison population by 9,308 beds, resulting in a 7 percent reduction in the prison population over the next decade.
This reduction below the current prison population would allow Oklahoma’s prison facilities to operate at a safer capacity, affording better protection for both guards and inmates, and ultimately, protecting taxpayers and citizens from poor public safety outcomes and the staggering cost of a bloated criminal justice system.
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 to 9 a.m. every weekday on Oklahoma’s AM 1640, “The Eagle.”
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.
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.