Incarceration is expensive in Oklahoma. The cost of our overcrowded prisons is projected to skyrocket in the next decade. The Department of Corrections requested $1.5 billion next year to address long-neglected repairs and to build a new prison to keep up with the current rate of inmate growth. Typically, states mitigate the cost of prison with parole, allowing offenders to serve the last part of their sentence under community supervision if the offender is no longer a threat to public safety. Parole should have two goals: incentivizing good behavior for those currently and formerly incarcerated while easing their re-entry into communities, and saving taxpayer money.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s parole system is broken. The number of inmates granted parole decreased 77 percent from 2008 to 2017. Even worse, policies around parole in Oklahoma actually encourage many inmates to forgo parole, and the process leaves offenders without the support structure available in other states. Reforms passed as part of the Justice Reform Task Force this year are a good start, but ensuring the promise of those reforms is realized is a critical next step.
Parole is costly for offenders in Oklahoma
As part of their release on parole, people leaving prison are required to follow certain conditions. Parole conditions are meant to ensure an inmate’s successful re-entry into her community, but if these conditions are too expensive and onerous, then fulfilling them falls out of reach for many – if not most – offenders. Every month, about 600 inmates become parole eligible, but only about 200 – 1 in 3 – apply for it, essentially passing up an opportunity for early release. This is in part because parole’s costs can add up quickly. Unless a parolee’s fees are waived for hardship, anyone on parole in this state must pay $40 per month for DOC supervision in addition to court fines and fees, as well as some additional amount of financial restitution depending on the offense.
In addition to this, a parolee may have to pay for up to two years of drug tests, a GPS ankle bracelet, a breathalyzer for their vehicle, and any cognitive behavioral therapy or classes which the parole board deems necessary for their release. These financial obstacles are often compounded by the fact that such a large percentage of those on parole have suspended drivers licenses, making attending required meetings and maintaining employment remarkably difficult. Some parole conditions are both necessary and reasonable, but if conditions make employment and paying bills more difficult, it’s hard to see how they promote public safety.
These economic hurdles can in fact lead to reoffending and cycles of incarceration. Many inmates would rather serve their full sentence than jump through the costly weekly hurdles of parole. In 2017, about 80 percent of criminal defendants were declared indigent, meaning they could not even afford an attorney.
To help more offenders access parole, lawmakers should eliminate the supervision fee and provide hardship waivers for other costs more available for offenders who are unable to pay. Wealth or poverty should not determine justice outcomes. Lawmakers should properly fund the Oklahoma court system to build on the progress of recent justice reforms.
Parole policies incentivize longer prison stays
Oklahoma law requires most non-violent offenders to serve one-third of their sentence before they are eligible for parole, but inmates can begin earning credits towards release the second they enter prison. However, no amount of good behavior shortens parole supervision. This means that for many non-violent offenders a prison sentence without parole is actually shorter than a sentence under community supervision with the conditions and costs of parole, thus disincentivizing offenders from applying for early release.
Exacerbating the situation is that many prisoners in Oklahoma view parole as a trap because its terms are so strict. Failing to meet the conditions of probation or parole was among the most common reasons Oklahomans went to prison in 2018. In 2015, roughly a quarter of prison admissions in this state were for technical violations of probation or parole conditions.
“Oklahoma parole is just a gotcha game” for many offenders, according to Kris Steele, Parole Board member and executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, “because they’ve seen how many inmates get parole only to end up back in prison.” In 2015 more than half of those violations which led to parole being revoked included no new criminal conviction. Sending someone to prison for missing meetings or failing a drug test is counterproductive, and research suggests that when low level offenders serve longer sentences they are more likely to reoffend.
Oklahoma should embrace parole reform
A landmark parole reform bill, HB 2286, passed the state Legislature earlier this year as part of the recommendations of Oklahoma’s justice reform task force. The law creates a new system of release for non-violent offenders called administrative parole, an automatic parole process for certain inmates which should have a huge impact on the prison population in the next several years. (Legal questions about the implementation timeline may delay the impact of the law, which will be explained in a future post.)
Other provisions of HB 2286 move Oklahoma towards the type of parole reforms recently adopted in several other states. Lawmakers in South Carolina, Missouri, and Louisiana have adopted a number of these evidence based reforms, and the results have been positive. One of these changes is to increase the availability of graduated sanctions. This means that if an inmate fails a drug test they get more access to treatment and support instead of prison, with more punitive options if offenders continue to fail the terms of their parole. In South Carolina, revocations have decreased 46 percent since the reforms passed in 2010, and those under supervision were 33 percent less likely to be incarcerated than before the reforms. South Carolina also created more hardship exemptions for parole fines and fees. In Louisiana lawmakers limited the amount of time those revoked for technical parole violations could be held to 90 days. This reform saved Louisiana taxpayers the cost of 2,034 beds, $17.6 million annually, and those parolees returning to prison for new crimes decreased by 22 percent.
The type of administrative parole and graduated sanctions created by HB 2286 are especially positive for underserved populations, particularly communities of color and those in rural areas. People with less access to mental health and substance abuse treatment see real benefit when community supervision is more focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Incarceration is expensive. This state should invest those dollars in solutions. Oklahoma lawmakers should use the parole system to equip those with justice involvement with the resources to thrive in their communities.