This is the second of a seven part series by Oklahoma Policy Institute to propose public policy action items for the state of Oklahoma. These recommendations are aimed at improving the shared prosperity of all Oklahomans while maintaining a fiscally responsible state budget. The first installment made recommendations for tax reform. Future installments will focus on criminal justice, education, energy, financial security, health care, and jobs.
Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is in a crisis. The state ranks 1st in the nation for incarceration of women per capita and 4th for men. From FY 1996 to FY 2011, the number of inmates in Oklahoma prisons increased by 30 percent, going from 19,968 to 25,977. This increase in prisoners was double the state’s overall population growth over that same period (15 percent).
All of this incarceration is not paying off in public safety, either—in 2011, the violent crime rate in Oklahoma was 18 percent higher than the national average. At the same time, the corrections system has become overwhelmed with non-violent drug offenders serving long sentences. From FY 2005 to FY 2010, non-violent drug offenders made up 31 percent of new prison admissions, compared to just 29 percent who were violent offenders.
State budgets have not kept pace with inmate growth, and the corrections system has become severely understaffed. The Department of Corrections now employs 871 fewer full-time workers than it did in FY 2008 and has been operating at between 67 and 75 percent staffing capacity for several years. This puts both inmates and corrections officers in serious danger.
There are signs of hope. The 2012 justice reinvestment bill showed a new willingness to make progress on this issue. New models of corrections like drug courts and the Women in Recovery program are gaining bipartisan support. Some in Oklahoma are taking a different mentality towards criminal justice—one that doesn’t pursue punishment for its own sake, but instead looks for what works to protect public safety in the most cost-effective way.
However, we have more work to do. The implementation of already passed corrections reforms are faltering due to lack of funding and inadequate coordination and leadership. We continue to follow counterproductive policies that push Oklahomans who are trying to escape addiction and contribute to society into a downward spiral, and the problem is growing more costly to taxpayers every year. The issue brief details concrete steps Oklahoma can take to address the financial and moral crisis in our criminal justice system:
- Eliminate barriers that make it harder for ex-felons to find and keep employment so they can reintegrate into society: Specific measures to accomplish this include ending suspension of Driver’s Licenses for misdemeanor possession, removing restrictions that block ex-felons from joining professions unrelated to their crime, and forbidding employers from asking about criminal records on job applications
- Aggressively implement and fund already passed reforms to increase cost-effective alternatives to incarceration and expand post-release supervision: The new justice reinvestment law calls for expanded supervision of offenders released on probation, substance abuse and mental health screenings for anyone convicted of a felony, and a grant program for local law enforcement agencies that were applying new strategies to combat violent crime. Passage of this law in 2011 was a modest first step to stopping the costly rise of incarceration, but it success will require more cooperative participation throughout the criminal justice system, as well as an up-front investment to create alternatives to incarceration.
- Reevaluate sentence length and felony status for non-violent drug offenses: The “elephant in the room” in the discussion of criminal justice reform in Oklahoma is the state’s harsh sentences for non-violent crimes. Research shows that rather than deterring crime, harsh incarceration policies can actually make low risk offenders more likely to reoffend. Conversely, shorter or alternative sentences paired with increased monitoring of parolees and probationers is more effective at reducing crime.