Oklahoma’s parole process — which allows conditional early release from prison — has played a key role in lowering the number of Oklahomans behind bars. The use of parole has reunited families, protected public safety, and saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars in incarceration costs. (Parole is contrasted with probation, which requires the criminal sentence to be served in the community rather than prison. Both require supervision, regular check-ins, routine drug testing, and monthly fees.)
Due in part to the relatively recent introduction of administrative parole that expedites the parole process, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate has decreased; even with that change, Oklahoma continues to have one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, including the second highest rate of incarcerated Black people in the country. Oklahoma also incarcerates more women per capita than almost anywhere in the United States – a ranking that has held for decades. Parole has proven itself as an established and effective mechanism to reduce the number of people currently incarcerated, while providing much needed services once someone is released. Policymakers should continue to improve the system, particularly in reentry services, while protecting recent investments and progress.
The parole process is working to decrease the number of people in prison. That is a good thing.
State law determines who is eligible for parole. Statutes require someone in prison to serve a certain percentage of their sentence before becoming eligible. The state also permits multiple ways for incarcerated people to earn specific time credits that speed up eligibility, such as completing certain education programs while incarcerated. Parole can be revoked when someone breaks a condition of release, such as committing a new crime or failing a drug test. Data from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board show only about 650 Oklahomans were released on some form of parole in 2021. This represents only about three percent (or 3 in 100) of the state’s overall prison population.
In recent years, the Oklahoma legislature has made important improvements to the parole system that have decreased the number of people in prison and strengthened public safety. In 2018, the state took a major step in fixing its broken and ineffective parole system by creating a streamlined parole process for some individuals in prison. Implementation of this administrative parole, combined with Governor Stitt’s appointments to the Pardon and Parole Board at the same time, increased parole approvals by more than 40 percent in the following year alone. This reform has since chipped away at Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis, leading to better outcomes for communities and less spending on locking people up.
Building on those investments, lawmakers during the 2022 regular legislative session approved additional improvements to parole with House Bill 4369. This measure allows people released on parole to earn credits that decrease the amount of time they are required to be supervised. The majority of states allow for this, and it represents a significant improvement to Oklahoma’s parole system. Going forward, lawmakers should resist changes that seek to roll back recent gains, while also investing in necessary reforms that create better outcomes and safer communities.
Oklahoma can decrease parole violations by investing in a comprehensive reentry system.
Even with recent progress in the number of people receiving parole, Oklahoma’s reentry system remains inadequate and ill-equipped to prepare people for life after incarceration and under supervision. Parole supervision is significantly less expensive than incarceration — just 10 percent of the cost — but the state’s parole system is badly underfunded. After release from prison, people face high barriers to obtaining basic needs like housing, employment, health care, and education. Oklahoma parents returning from prison will face additional challenges in reuniting with their children.
Investments in a robust and effective reentry system will keep people from returning to prison and actually protect our communities. When someone has a stable job and consistent housing, recidivism goes down and crime decreases. Smart investments in the reentry system should include increased funding for career development, where Oklahoma in the past decade has decreased spending by nearly 30 percent in skills training for people in prison.
Improvements to the parole system also require lawmakers to fulfill the appropriation requirements of State Question 781, which provides money for community-based treatment for mental health and substance use disorders to every county in the state. These monetary investments will have a broad impact on the entire criminal justice system and our economy, as well as the people released on parole and their families.
A comprehensive reentry system also reduces the number of violations for breaking parole conditions, keeping people out of jail or prison. When compared to national best practices, Oklahoma’s parole system is overly restrictive, which increases the likelihood that individuals return to incarceration for violations. The arduous and costly conditions exacerbate an already difficult transition, with requirements ranging from consistent check-ins with parole officers to expensive monthly fees, mandatory drug-testing and restricted movement. Violations of those conditions lead to court sanctions and parole being revoked, even without committing a new crime.
Oklahoma policymakers should follow national best practices to create a parole model that focuses conditions on what is necessary for public safety. These conditions should account for the individualized goals of the person on parole and ensure that any parole officer interaction or treatment program is located in their current community. Incarceration for technical violations makes our communities less safe by destroying families and disrupting progress made while on parole. Arrest and incarceration should be reserved only for instances where there is a clear threat to public safety.
Lawmakers should also eliminate assessing parole fees on individuals and replace the funding with consistent budget appropriations. Individuals who are trying to rebuild their lives after prison face enormous hurdles at nearly every turn. The assessment of additional fees places unnecessary financial burdens on their path to success. Funding the state’s parole system through appropriations would be a more just approach, and as a practical matter would help eliminate the failure to pay fines and fees as a significant cause for parole violations.
Technical violations of parole conditions can lead to more time in prison and worse overall outcomes
Violations of supervision have been one of the leading causes of prison admissions in Oklahoma, with parole revocations accounting for around a quarter of all prison admissions. Parole conditions can be contradictory and counterproductive, actually increasing the likelihood of returning to prison. Parole officers have unmanageably high caseloads with an average of 100 cases per officer, resulting in less than adequate supervision and more parole violations.
Justice-involved folks experience a disproportionately high rate of housing instability. Lack of stable housing contributes to higher levels of technical violations as it makes it more difficult to hold down a job and report to parole officers. The failure to pay parole fees can also lead to parole revocation and further prison time, effectively criminalizing poverty. Individualized parole conditions combined with robust reentry services will contribute to better parole compliance, fewer people being incarcerated for parole violations, and increased focus by parole officers to help the people who need it most.
Investments in Oklahoma’s parole system improves health and safety for all
Modernization of the state’s parole system has decreased the number of people currently in prison in Oklahoma, but further changes are needed. Lawmakers should invest in a comprehensive reentry system to help people on parole and ensure parole conditions are tailored to the specific needs of an individual. They should also decrease the financial burden from parole fees. As parole continues to play a vital role in Oklahoma’s criminal legal system, now is the time to make further investments in reentry and parole supervision. These changes will have a broad impact on public safety and community well-being for all Oklahomans.