Oklahoma’s overreliance on incarceration is increasing prison population (Capitol Update)

It looks like the relief the state’s corrections system received by passage of State Question 780 in 2016 has ended, and Oklahoma’s incarceration numbers are beginning to increase again. SQ 780 lowered the penalty from felony to misdemeanor for simple drug possession and lowered the penalties for some property offenses. 

In 2019, the legislature made the provisions of SQ 780 retroactive, which triggered release of people incarcerated for these nonviolent offenses. Incarceration rates also likely decreased because of the pandemic as court proceedings were delayed and some offenders were released for safety reasons.

But now, according to a report in Oklahoma Watch, Oklahoma’s prison population rose 2.3 percent from December 2021 to December 2022, a notable shift after three consecutive years of decline. During the decline, Oklahoma went from first to fourth nationally in rate of incarceration, following only Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

The trend back to higher incarceration rates was predictable due to lack of substantial criminal legal reform in the state despite tremendous efforts by reform advocates. Efforts are thwarted during each legislative session by a combination of lobbying by prosecutors and law enforcement, apathy, and fear by many legislators of being perceived as “soft on crime.” 

Limited progress has been made with some reform legislation, making it easier for certain offenders to have their records expunged and for offenders, who are unable to pay, to be relieved of onerous fines, fees, and court costs. But the system in Oklahoma remains heavily tilted toward overincarceration. Even unnecessarily lengthy deferred and suspended sentences are often only a precursor to a lengthy prison sentence. 

Efforts to reclassify offenses and lower unduly harsh maximum punishments have failed to make it through the legislative process in the past two legislative sessions. The effort will continue next session and hopefully will be successful. But the devil is in the details. 

Lives are being impacted today, every day. Thanks to SQ 780, a record number of nonviolent drug offenders were released, some with many years remaining on their sentences. But the system continues, and the numbers are now beginning to go back up while other essential state services are being shortchanged to support overincarceration.  


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.