Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
As has now become ritual, the Department of Corrections (DOC) is sounding the alarm about the overcrowding of Oklahoma’s Corrections system. It was announced last week that DOC reached another population record with 63,009 people in its system, marking the third significant population increase in less than a year. It was also announced that the Board of Corrections, when it meets this month, will likely be asked to consider what DOC Director Joe Allbaugh has described as a community release-based program. The yet undefined program is expected to release lower-risk prisoners to some sort of community supervision for part or all of the last 18 months of their sentences.
Despite the DOC warnings, nothing has been done to ease the overcrowding. In fact, the trend is to continue with more felony convictions, more sentences requiring incarceration, often lengthy, unnecessary and counterproductive probation revocations, and less funding for rehabilitation and treatment programs. Ranking second overall and first for women, Oklahoma remains at the top of the states for incarcerating its citizens. Any hint of change spews forth a torrent of warnings about how terrible the crimes of those locked up are. This is followed by warnings of how we would be forfeiting public safety if we took the path of most other states and treated cases individually, giving judges, juries, corrections officials, the parole board, and the governor the ability to discern the best interest of the public and act upon it.
Instead, in Oklahoma, we have a system that by statute encourages lengthy pretrial incarceration, relies heavily on mandatory minimum sentences, encourages lengthy sentences, requires defendants to rely on the forbearance of prosecutors which is often not forthcoming and is inconsistent at best, discourages the accused from exercising his rights, and severely limits parole. No wonder our prisons and our DOC budget are bursting at the seams.
This is not a problem DOC can fix. The proposal to stem the crisis by allowing low-level offenders out early is something DOC can apparently do, but it is at best a band-aid. It will neither fix the overcrowding problem nor make our system more just and fair. Our criminal justice system is out of balance in Oklahoma. There’s no reason it cannot be rebalanced, as it has been in many other states who are reaping the rewards of less spending and less crime. But that’s going to have to be done by our leaders who were elected to make public policy. Meanwhile Joe Allbaugh will have to continue making the best of it.