Oklahoma’s prisons are still on a path to disaster

Even with positive and important criminal justice reforms passing in the Legislature and in the ballot box this year, the Oklahoma prison population is on track to grow by 25 percent – about 7,200 inmates – in the next ten years. Unless we do something to prevent this growth, it will cost nearly $2 billion in new prison construction and operating costs in that time. Governor Fallin’s Justice Reform Task Force, a group of stakeholders tasked with putting forth proposals to curb that growth, is confronting an incarceration problem that’s among the most severe in the nation and quickly getting worse. 

Those projections come from the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which are providing technical assistance to the Task Force as it develops its proposals. Their analysis of data from the Department of Corrections and Administrative Office of the Courts paints a striking picture of a system that is ever more bent toward incarceration, even as state leaders are finally acknowledging the steep human and financial costs of the status quo.

Oklahoma’s prison population is very high and still growing faster than nearly every other state’s

The prison population grew 9 percent, or about 2,200 people, between 2011 and 2016, according to data from CJI and Pew. The number of people admitted to prison grew by about 20 percent from 2011 to 2015, and the number of felony cases filed in criminal courts increased by 22 percent. All this happened while both violent and property crime rates fell. As crime falls, we should expect felony filings and prison admissions to fall as well; instead, the opposite is happening. 

Source: Crime and Justice Institute/Pew Charitable Trusts

A recent report puts these trends in context. Between 2010 and 2015, 31 states reduced both crime and incarceration. Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate, already one of the highest in the nation, grew at the third fastest pace among the states. Of the states that reduced imprisonment, most saw their crime rate fall much faster than those that increased imprisonment. As we’ve pointed out before, the link between incarceration and crime is weak, at best, and Oklahoma has no public safety gains to show for its continued dependence on prison for all levels of crime.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh has been drawing attention to the prison crisis recently, notably with a $1.65 billion budget request – which is about 2.4 times the agency’s current budget – that includes salary increases, capital improvements, and two new prisons to house the booming population. The Corrections Department now supervises over 61,000 Oklahomans, either in prison or in the community, for the first time in history.

Recent reforms aren’t enough to change the growth trajectory

CJI’s data makes it clear that imprisoning people for drug possession is still a major contributor to the high prison population, despite claims to the contrary from District Attorneys. Possession of a controlled substance was the top controlling offense for newly sentenced prisoners in FY 2015, up 54 percent since FY 2011. Of those 1,238 people who went to prison for drug possession, 455 had no prior felony convictions, compared to just 188 in FY 2011. Those serving time for drug possession spent almost two and a half years in prison on average, and they stayed about 9 months beyond their parole eligibility. Drug possession offenders account for one in 10 people in Oklahoma prisons.

After State Question 780 comes into effect next July, this will no longer be the case, as the reclassification of drug possession as a misdemeanor will divert those offenders away from the prison system. But because there is no statutory amount threshold to distinguish simple possession from Possession With Intent to Distribute (PWID), which remains a felony, we may see the number of prisoners on PWID charges increase. It’s already the second highest controlling offense for admitted prisoners, at 604 people in FY 2015. 

While the passage of sentencing reforms and SQ 780 will have positive effects, they aren’t up to the task of reducing growth, because increased admissions of drug offenders is just the beginning of the bad news uncovered by CJI and Pew. Admissions for property crimes grew by 29 percent; crimes against persons by 19 percent; and other offenses by 24 percent. Among nonviolent offenders admitted to prison, 43 percent had no prior convictions, and another 13 percent had only one. It’s still far too easy for a person to go to prison in Oklahoma on their first nonviolent offense.

Perhaps most disheartening is the trend in female incarceration, which has gained Oklahoma national attention for being the highest in the world. In the last five years, the imprisonment rate for women has grown by about 10 percent. Only 20 percent of female admissions were for violent crimes; the rest were nonviolent, including 42 percent for drug crimes. Despite the high-profile success of programs like ReMerge and Women in Recovery, the state is still moving decisively in the wrong direction in this area, too.

Source: DOJ and BJS statistics via Crime and Justice Institute/Pew Charitable Trusts

Low parole rates have dropped even further

While the front door has opened wider to pull more inmates into the system, fewer people are leaving through the exits. Oklahoma continues to have a very low parole rate, especially for the size of its prison population. In 2013, Oklahoma ranked 45th in the rate of parolees under supervision, at a rate about a quarter of the national average. 

And yet, despite the requirement that offenders serve at least nine months under supervision after release, Oklahoma’s already-low parole numbers have, amazingly, continued to fall. The number of inmates released on parole dropped nearly 50 percent between 2011 and 2015, from 992 to 527. While many inmates are released to probation or other post-release supervision, parole remains vastly underused as a safe release valve for the prison population.

To put it plainly, the task facing Oklahoma lawmakers and criminal justice officials is to turn around a freight train hurtling down the track in the wrong direction. We’ve needed bold steps for years. If these numbers aren’t the wake-up call that lawmakers need to finally take those steps, it’s hard to imagine what would be.


Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

2 thoughts on “Oklahoma’s prisons are still on a path to disaster

  1. I was glad to see the passage of SQ780 & SQ781 this past November to help on the front end of the criminal justice system. However, I would like to see more change on the back end of the system as well. The reintegration process after ones release from prison is a very difficult road. Especially if one is a violent offender. The living restrictions and registration requirements make it almost impossible for one to be a successful productive citizen. I understand the safety aspect of strict supervision after ones release from prison, but I feel at some point in time one has to say enough is enough when it comes to punishment. The violent offender coming out of prison has no hope of ever getting a record expungement and resuming a normal life again. Even if he or she has been out for 20 years with no trouble, they will always be legally discriminated against and treated as an outcast from society because of the felony conviction on their record. I feel all offenders coming out of prison should have the hope of someday being able to get a record expungement and returning to a normal, productive life. Under Oklahoma’s current expungement laws, only non-violent offenders are allowed the opportunity to seek a criminal record expungement. According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections 2015 Annual Report, 48% of all inmates have a violent crime as their controlling case. This means Oklahoma is closing the door on 48% of released offenders for having a hopeful and successful reintegration. These former offenders will more than likely become a recidivist committing other non-violent theft crimes trying to survive contributing to the high incarceration rate that Oklahoma is dealing with.

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