Accepting our highest-in-the-world incarceration rate means believing that Oklahomans are the worst people

Update: Recent criminal justice reforms have moved Oklahoma’s incarceration rate back to second in the world.   

We knew the day would come when Oklahoma surpassed Louisiana as the highest-incarcerating state in the highest-incarcerating country in the world. After Louisiana’s legislature passed a sweeping criminal justice reform package in 2017, Oklahoma Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh said that he “expect[s] Oklahoma’s incarceration rate to eventually be the country’s highest.”

As it turns out, Oklahoma has had the highest incarceration rate in the world since the end of 2016; we just didn’t know it because federal statistics are released on a year-long lag. This bitter milestone should be an occasion to reflect on what this says about our state and our current justice reform debates. We must begin to ask opponents of reform why Oklahoma deserves to maintain the highest incarceration rate in the world, and what that says about their view of our fellow citizens.

Our incarceration rate has skewed our sense of normal

Oklahoma incarcerates about 1,079 per 100,000 of our residents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative study that’s received attention recently. That includes people in state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, Indian Country jails, juvenile justice, and otherwise held by the justice system. When counting only adults, our incarceration rate is even higher: 1,300 out of every 100,000 adults, or 1.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics

These numbers put Oklahoma at the very top of the list of states, just more than Louisiana and Mississippi, and over 50 percent higher than the national incarceration rate. And we’re far out of step with the rest of a country that is already far out of step with the rest of the world. Oklahoma’s incarceration rate, for example, is nearly 10 times higher than that of Canada.

That means that more than 1 in 100 Oklahoma adults is in jail or prison at any given time. With incarceration this common, it seems that just about every Oklahoman should have several family members, friends, or acquaintances in jail or prison, but we know that the burden of the justice system falls much more heavily on low-income communities and communities of color.

For black Oklahomans, the incarceration rate was five times higher than for white Oklahomans, with nearly 4 in 100 black Oklahomans incarcerated in 2010, a number that’s certainly grown eight years later. This mass incarceration of black Oklahomans – especially black men – is so widespread that it warps our sense of reality. The communities impacted most heavily by incarceration are missing thousands of men of prime working age, who could be earning an income and contributing to their families and communities, but are instead locked up for years and released with badly diminished work and life prospects. This is an enormous loss to all of us, even those who don’t know anyone who is incarcerated. We’ll never know what these people might have contributed to our state – economically, creatively, in schools, in jobs, in families – because we’ve essentially thrown them away.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform leader Kris Steele often says, “There is no such thing as a spare Oklahoman.” It’s a sentiment that should be true, but data clearly shows it’s not how we’ve been acting as a state.

When reform is met with alarmism, the burden of proof should fall on opponents of reform

With incarceration rates that are not rivaled even by the most repressive governments in the world, Oklahomans should constantly be asking this question of our officials, our neighbors, and ourselves: why is our current level of incarceration appropriate here when it’s not needed literally anywhere else in the world?

Even broadly popular reforms that took aim at the possession of drugs for personal use and minor theft crimes have brought alarmist criticism from elected law enforcement officials and legislators, who warned that reducing punishments would allow evildoers to roam school playgrounds, shooting heroin and getting children hooked. While SQ 780 remains mostly intact (HB 2281, a bill to meant to lower property theft sentences, included  a provision that makes the theft of a firearm of any value a felony, rather than only those worth more than $1,000), District Attorneysand even some of their challengers – have maintained their opposition. “It is giving the drug dealing culture exactly what they want. They’re going to feel emboldened if all they have to worry about is a misdemeanor crime,” warned Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.

It’s much harder to accept that argument if we step back and look at where our prison-addicted justice system has left us. If incarceration keeps us safer, as opponents of reform argue, we should expect that the highest incarceration rate in the world should bring with it the safest, most prosperous communities in the world. Instead, we have above-average levels of crime, devastated communities (especially those of color), stubbornly high rates of poverty, and growing inequality.

Opponents of justice reform hold a radical idea of our state and our neighbors, and we must challenge that idea at every turn

Reformers must continue to respond to tough-on-crime arguments defensively, pointing out that there’s simply no evidence that reducing punishments emboldens criminals. But we should also proactively challenge the thinking behind those arguments by asking, loudly and repeatedly, why Oklahomans should be incarcerated at a level not seen anywhere else in the world. Are Oklahomans more dangerous, more prone to addiction, more given to stealing from our neighbors, than the rest of the world? Are Oklahomans really ten times more criminal than Canadians?

We must challenge everyone who opposes meaningful criminal justice reform to answer those questions in a serious way. We must put the onus of explaining why Oklahoma deserves to have the highest incarceration rate in the world on the people – legislators, law enforcement officials, prosecutors – whom we entrust with ensuring our public safety, and who could, with the right kinds of support and pressure, begin to change our approach immediately.

Doing so will elevate a key truth: the real radicals in the reform debate are those who believe that what has worked to reduce crime and incarceration elsewhere would lead to chaos in Oklahoma. This isn’t just wrong; it’s a disturbing idea that reveals the lowest imaginable opinion of the people of our state.


Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

9 thoughts on “Accepting our highest-in-the-world incarceration rate means believing that Oklahomans are the worst people

  1. I have just read this article and it disturbs me.My son Jimmy Pitts is in prison he got 20 years they have him 3 5 year sentences for concealing stolen property and 2 ten years to run consecutive for less than half ounce of marijuana and some meth maybe a gram my son his addicted to meth he had to have the drug so he stoled to get the drug he was not offered rehab he also suffers from Mental Health tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in chest several years ago. He was in drug court but no help he passed all the drug test he met a girl moved in with her and meth was there he started using again and was on the run from drug court because of his addiction and mental health I feel my son was thrown in prison only to be forgot he’s a good person and deserved a chance like others got. This happened in Love Co.and he’s at William S Key facility I feel if he had extensive rehab he could be reformed. Iam a Registered Nurse here in Okla.Have worked in Mental Health at Crisis Center and we have saved so many by detoxing them and sending straight to rehab for at least a year maybe longer.I had to respond to this article because it hits my family close.I believe strongly that sending someone to rehab can keep them out of prison also why would a judge send someone to prison for 20 years. This is not right and maybe this is a part of the reason Oklahoma has the highest incareration rate especially if other DAs and judges are doing the same. Melinda Pitts

  2. I grew up in Oklahoma but live in Wisconsin. I experienced corporeal punishment in middle school and high school in Oklahoma. They hit me with a long board with alot of drilled holes. I was a good kid. I got swated twice very hard by my gym teacher for talking before roll call. I got swated twice by detention officer for asking for help to stop a bully. I know why Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate. It is because Oklahoma has a culture of punishment to enforce cooperation. If you do not cooperate we have laws to punish. This creates oppressed dysfunctional citizens. Citizens affraid to live in society. Eventually they give up and resign themselves to a life of indifference. I, myself am a recluse. I operated a small business but keep to myself and mind my own business. I basically live in fear of my fellow man. I am afraid to be free. I may get punished. If you would like to talk to me my cell is 7154981788 I am not a fellon and I have never been to prison. Thank you.

  3. Scott Cobb, I am from Oklahoma as well. I had to leave
    the state. The criminals are the elected officials and everyone else involved in the judicial system there. I don’t believe I’ve read more accurate and concise statements regarding my home state. I have lived in Mississippi, and Louisiana, and sadly they actually are years ahead of Oklahoma in so many ways, in spite of what one might think.
    I wish the citizens would wake up, yet I’m afraid when that happens, those citizens leave, often vowing never to return.

  4. I have moved from Oklahoma but it was my home state for most of my life! Prison is big business in Oklahoma and the citizens pay highly to support it while your legislators and governor grow wealthy from it! Oklahoma ranks 48th in education and number 1 in prisons for the world! The Republicans intend to keep it that way and will do nothing to stop it because they make lots of money for themselves! I pray for all those young people that’s lives have been forever ruined because of the prison culture of Oklahoma! Vote Democratic and demand reform! Educate your children, don’t send them to prison!

  5. Oklahoma truly saddens me with our lack of education and support. I worked in the prison and had the opportunity to help prisoners. Before I began working there, I was frightened but after working there, I saw many lives destroyed. My heart broke over and over again seeing these people who basically grew up with no support that led them down to their life of crime. Society wants to lock em up and throw away the key.

    With that being said, I also realize there are victims of violent crimes that need our support, too. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t pay the consequences for their actions. But rather, hoping to draw attention to where the real crime begins. It begins in our communities. It takes a village to raise a child. And when that child goes to bed hungry and starts roaming the streets looking for some sort of support, that’s where it all starts.

    Oklahomans are divided between the have and have nots. There is a dividing line and if you aren’t born on the right side, you don’t have a chance. Those who would challenge me, I’d like to remind you of this scripture:

    ““Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
    ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:34-45‬ ‭NIV‬‬

    It all begins when we are kind to those who are less fortunate.

    As stated previously, I’m not blaming the victims of crimes here. Victims do deserve protection and justice. I’m generally speaking about prisoners that are convicted for lesser charges.

    We all deserve a little grace. And we desperately need reform, a system that holds those needing reform a chance in life. This can be performed by holding prisoners accountable in life, being a role model for them, and teaching new ways of relating with others. That’s my prayer.

  6. I was handcuffed and in a police car for obstruction of Justice.. because he told me to get out of my car and I said no sir I respectfully decline your offer unless I’m being detained… He then arrested me for obstruction.. then. He put the cuffs on so tight I couldn’t feel my fingers.. I asked him 6 or 7 times to loose the cuffs I couldn’t feel my fingers. He said no your good.. stuck me in the police car.. and walked away.. I leaned over to my left so my hands wouldn’t have pressure on them.. he comes back says lean back so I can out the seat belt on you.. I said I can’t feel my fingers can you please just loose the right cuff one notch.. he said no it’s fine. I then hollered loudly god damnit I can’t feel my fingers.. he then climbed into the car choking me with his forearm while beating me with his elbow in the face..
    Then told me to get out and get on the ground. I said ok. And got out once he’d gotten off of me. Then I got on my knees he said get down on your face I said ok.. but I need help I’m cuffed I turned my head to the right to see him.. he said don’t fckn look at me. And knees me in the back while saying I’ll fckn help you.. then starts elbowing me in the face some more. While a woman cop jumps on my back and twisting my wrists. And a male cops holding my legs. And then the chick on my back hollers o he kicked me. … So they charged me with felony assult and battery on a police officer… Ten years is what I’m looking at… Has cost. Me a 36 hr job… Been out of work for 3 yrs because charged with a violent crime I can’t be working in people’s homes. So….. I’m screwed for absolutely no reason I lost my job my vehicle my home.. I have full custody of two kids.. no more money to pay attorney and now my trial is coming up.. attorney says he’s quitting cause I can’t pay him more than the 6500 I already gave him.. so… I’m screwed.. justice for all who can outwait their bs….. Goodluck

  7. Oklahoma needs new leaders. The courts need new blood as well. Sentencing reform, alternative sentencing remedies, the prisons are overcrowded and crumbling.

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