Addressing ‘upstream’ issues in Oklahoma’s over-incarceration problem (Capitol Update)

Gov. Stitt’s new Secretary of Public Safety Tricia Everest attended last Monday’s Pardon and Parole Board meeting and publicly addressed its members. Her remarks were encouraging. Regarding criminal justice reform, she told the board that incarceration isn’t necessarily the best answer for offenders who are not a danger to themselves or others. She also suggested that it is important to recognize “if we can’t divert individuals upstream that at the point of sentencing, we have a plan of reentry.” She thanked the board for their work and offered her service “to help really identify those that don’t need to be in there.”

In her remarks, Secretary Everest was speaking about the board’s role, which only comes into play “downstream” after an offender has been sentenced to a term in prison. But where the system also needs her help is “upstream” as she put it — before a sentence of incarceration occurs. A harsh sentencing regime, together with numerous systemic weaknesses in the system that place inordinate control of sentencing with District Attorneys, is where change needs to happen. The governor and the legislature working together can get that done, and her thoughtful approach can make a difference.   

Over-incarceration in Oklahoma is far from a new issue. Gov. Mary Fallin’s Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force Final Report issued in February 2017 reported that in Oklahoma during the study period, “Seventy-five percent of people admitted to prison were sentenced for nonviolent crimes; over half of individuals sentenced to prison for nonviolent offenses have one or no prior felony convictions, and 80 percent have no history of violent crimes. Research demonstrates that incarceration is no more effective at reducing recidivism than alternatives to prison and can actually increase the recidivism rates of lower-level individuals. Despite the risk of increasing recidivism for lower-level, non-violent offences, Oklahoma uses prison over alternatives more often than other states and has focused many of its prison beds on those sentenced for nonviolent crimes with limited criminal history.”

Despite these findings, without adequate legislative support during her final two legislative sessions, most of the major recommendations of the Fallin task force and other reform efforts failed to pass before she left office. In his term so far, Gov. Stitt’s focus has been primarily on the pardon and parole process. Without sufficient support from the governor and legislative leadership, effective “upstream” reforms will not happen. And just letting people out of prison early, when justice could have been better served by their not having been there at all, will never solve the over-incarceration problem in Oklahoma.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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