The debate surrounding criminal justice reform in Oklahoma generally focuses on one question: How do we reduce our very high incarceration rates without jeopardizing public safety? As Gov. Fallin said about her Justice Reform Task Force’s proposals during the 2017 legislative session, “These historic votes will improve public safety in Oklahoma and save our state $1.9 billion.” On the other side of the debate, Rep. Scott Biggs, who scuttled most of the Justice Reform Task Force bills as Chairman of the Judiciary – Criminal Justice and Corrections committee this year, claimed that he did so to protect public safety

The facts in this dispute are on the side of Gov. Fallin, not Rep. Biggs. We’ve pointed out before that the link between incarceration and crime is surprisingly weak. Research shows that smart investments in the right places can effectively reduce crime, but they require a much different approach than what Oklahoma currently takes. Here’s a look at what we know works to reduce crime.

Increase funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment

By a strong majority, Oklahomans voted last year to convert drug possession and low-level property crimes into misdemeanors (SQ 780) and use the savings to fund substance abuse and mental health treatment programs (SQ 781). Supporters of SQ 780 and SQ 781 argued that diverting minor offenders from prison and investing the savings in treatment services would help keep the public safer. This is a big promise, but the available evidence supports it.

A vast body of research shows a connection between increased substance abuse services and lower rates of crime. One study found that increasing treatment by 10 percent measurably reduces both property crimes like robbery and larceny and violent crimes like aggravated assault. Other studies show that for every dollar spent on treatment, several dollars are saved in crime and health care costs. 

Since Oklahoma ranks among the lowest states in access to mental health care and has a long waiting list for treatment services, improving funding could go a long way to make treatment available to more who need it. SB 603, one of the few Justice Reform Task Force proposals to pass this year, requires the Department of Corrections to develop risk and needs assessments for people both in prison and under supervision and widen access to treatment services for both groups. But with estimated costs of over $7 million to implement in the first year in the midst of an ongoing budget crisis, those services are extremely unlikely to materialize.

Reduce overly harsh punishments

For decades, lawmakers passed increasingly long punishments for all sorts of crimes, believing that the threat of a long prison sentence would deter people from committing crimes. As part of this trend, Oklahoma’s laws became some of the harshest in the country. The emphasis on tough sentences for nonviolent crimes has led to some strange distortions in the law; for instance, a second offense of possession of most controlled substances other than marijuana carries a 10 year maximum sentence (until SQ 780 goes into effect), the same as the sentence for commercial sexual exploitation of a minor.

The most fervent believers in this tough-on-crime logic are those with the greatest influence over how crimes are punished: district attorneys. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater expressed this reasoning when he predicted that reducing prison sentences for some drug crimes would “lead to more home and auto break-ins and other crimes.” The tendency of prosecutors to seek long sentences is the major reason for Oklahoma’s consistent prison population growth.

“Every dollar that is spent on expensive, ineffective incarceration is a dollar that is not being spent on substance abuse and mental health treatment, smart policing strategies, and proven supervision practices.”

This belief doesn’t match the facts. Prison is especially ineffective at reducing drug crime rates. High rates of drug imprisonment do not correlate to lower drug use, arrests, or overdose deaths at the state level. Research also shows that making punishments more severe does not make people less likely to commit crimes. Instead, increasing the likelihood that a person will be caught and punished — even if the penalty is lighter — is much more likely to affect a person’s behavior. And because incarceration is our most expensive form of punishment, imposing long sentences drains dollars away from the programs that would be far more effective at stopping crime.

Make punishment more likely through law enforcement and effective supervision

Strategies to focus law enforcement resources on locations with high rates of crime are effective in reducing criminal activity. Crime often tends to cluster around “hot spots” in certain neighborhoods, streets, and addresses. To cite an extreme example, in Chicago “almost half of the city’s killings occur in only eight of its 79 neighborhoods.” By increasing the amount of time officers spend at hot spots and engaging community members to solve problems, these enforcement strategies encourage community members to report and deter crime before it happens. Various studies have shown that this strategy reduces crime significantly without simply displacing the criminal activity to another area.

The same principle applies to people who are convicted of a crime, but receive a community-based sentence or are released from prison on parole. People under correctional supervision must follow certain guidelines — like passing drug tests, obeying curfews, and looking for a job — or risk having their supervision revoked and going to prison for the entirety of their sentence. But because our only back-up to punish parole or probation infractions is costly and extreme (going to prison), supervisors are left with the bad choice of allowing minor violations to go unpunished or making a hugely disproportionate response.

Instead, research shows that swift, certain consequences for each infraction, like a short stay in jail, work much better to deter misbehavior than an uncertain threat of several years in prison. That was the idea behind SB 689 and HB 2286, Justice Reform Task Force bills that would require the Department of Corrections to implement plans for intermediate sanctions for probation and parole supervisees, respectively. But again, these bills were denied a hearing in Rep. Biggs’ committee in the final days of session.

Next year, legislative leaders need to stop allowing one obstructionist legislator to stop smart reforms that would have majority support if allowed a vote. Every dollar that is spent on expensive, ineffective incarceration is a dollar that is not being spent on substance abuse and mental health treatment, smart policing strategies, and proven supervision practices. The Justice Reform Task Force bills would improve public safety, and the opponents of reform do not have facts on their side.