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.
In preparation for the upcoming session, Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh appeared before the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that are responsible for crafting next year’s DOC budget. He cited Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics showing Oklahoma is again number 2 in overall incarceration of our citizens and number 1 in incarcerating women. We are holding in prison 673 per 100,000 Oklahoma residents. The national average is 397 per 100,000. If Oklahoma incarcerated our people at the national average, there would be 11,020 fewer inmates in our prisons at a cost of $48 per day. Doing the math, if we were just average in incarceration, neither high nor low, the savings to the state budget would be $193 million!
As a life-long Oklahoman, I doubt that either a disproportionately high rate of crime or an excessively punitive attitude toward offenders by Oklahomans would justify an incarceration rate over 40 percent higher than the average state. And it is apparent, based on the actions of our state government over the past decades, that Oklahomans are unwilling to pay the tab for this level of incarceration. As a result, Director Allbaugh has consistently warned that our corrections system is a time bomb just waiting to explode. He says keeping up with the current trend will require a $1.53 billion investment next year.
The problem is not with DOC. The problem is that our laws, and the way they are implemented, incarcerate too many Oklahomans in DOC. More than most states, Oklahoma puts individuals on a path that ends in lengthy, counterproductive prison sentences.
Oklahomans recognized this when they passed SQ 780 at the polls reducing simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. There are currently 855 inmates in DOC who are still serving sentences imposed before SQ 780 was passed. Sen. Roger Thompson has filed a bill to give those inmates who are serving a sentence no longer possible under current law an opportunity to go back to court and ask the judge to re-sentence them. DOC has estimated that just this bill could save $9.8 million. If legislators want to bring Oklahoma more in line with national norms and follow the will of the people, this is a common sense beginning.