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 Attorneys – and 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.