| December 7, 2010

Time for prison reform in Oklahoma

[This Marlin Oil advertorial appears in the Dec. 9 edition of The City Sentinel.]

For 12 of the last 13 years, Oklahoma Corrections Department officials have gone to the Legislature and governor seeking supplemental appropriations. The prison population of Oklahoma has grown from 17,983 to 26,720 since 1996. Oklahoma leads the nation, most years, in the number of women behind bars.

Some caution is in order as state officials seek to stem the tide of expenditures and human wreckage that lies behind the data.

First, incarceration is the a reliable form of incapacitation. Second, comparatively long prison terms have the effect of keeping people behind bars past their "prime time" years of crime. As a matter of cost-benefit, not all the arguments fall on one side of this discussion.

Yet, there's no denying that Speaker of the House Kris Steele is on to something as he appeals for a fresh look at crime and punishment in Oklahoma. With prisons already at 99 percent capacity, there is no room to put new violent criminals behind bars in the current system. That drives bad decisions in some isolated cases.

While some advocates for prisoners say the number of non-violent criminals incarcerated is huge, by the time the current cycle of introspection and investigation concludes, it's likely the numbers will be more modest than expected.

And yet, even if only a few thousand prisoners are diverted into effective treatment programs, the difference in human resources and costs to the state will be dramatic. The state will thereby reserve space for truly violent felons, and countless women and men will be saved from indolence and despair through diversion into work programs, treatment centers to help them grapple with addictions, and better preparation for the day they get out.

The good news is that incoming Governor Mary Fallin worked on incarceration issues during her tenure as lieutenant governor, and understands a fresh approach is needed. Carefully, and prayerfully, it's time for prison reform in Oklahoma.

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