In 2016, Oklahoma incarcerated a higher percentage of its population than any other place on Earth. Much attention has been focused on the success of criminal justice reforms like State Question 780, but reforms to the state’s parole system — which grants early prison release for eligible inmates — had a tremendous impact on lessening Oklahoma’s prison crisis. Legislative reforms to the parole process, in conjunction with Gov. Stitt’s Pardon and Parole Board appointments, have contributed to a 14 percent decline in the state’s prison population in the past year. This decline is somewhat inflated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ response to COVID-19, which restricted county jails from transferring people into state prisons to reduce the virus’ transmission. In the long term, the impact of these parole reforms will save Oklahoma taxpayers millions in incarceration cost.
As a result of these reforms, Oklahoma is no longer the prison capital of the world. The state now has the nation’s third highest per capita incarceration rate behind Louisiana and Mississippi. While this progress is welcomed, the fact remains that Oklahoma still faces a significant incarceration crisis. The third highest incarceration rate in the U.S. should not be cause for celebration. Oklahoma has the nation’s highest Black incarceration rate. One in 15 adult Black men are incarcerated in our state, and we’ve maintained the nation’s highest female incarceration rate for nearly 30 years. In the context of a global pandemic, high incarceration rates present enormous risks. Increased parole reduces some of the risk prisons face from COVID-19. Parole can also strengthen families by reuniting them, as well as helping those with justice involvement find the community support they need to succeed. These outcomes do much more than simply reduce dangerous prison overcrowding and save tax dollars. They can change people’s lives for the better. Policymakers should invest in parole to promote best practices and to build on recent positive gains.
Oklahoma’s parole trends have been reversed
During the decade prior to 2018, parole was functionally broken in Oklahoma, but this negative trend has been reversed. From 2018 to 2019, the Pardon and Parole Board increased its favorable recommendations by 225 percent. This change is significant because states mitigate the cost of prison with parole. A functioning parole system provides enormous benefits for both families and communities, while also incentivizing good behavior for those in prison. Recent reforms helped more Oklahomans access these benefits. As the chart below illustrates, the implementation of a streamlined parole process called administrative parole in 2018 helped increase the parole granted rate by 42 percent in a single fiscal year. Gov. Stitt also appointed three new members to Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board to help implement better practices. These changes opened the door to historic reforms. When voter-approved reforms to the state’s outdated sentencing laws were made retroactive in 2019, this Parole Board helped facilitate the largest single day commutation in American history. These actions culminated in Gov. Stitt signing a record 774 commutations, 290 pardons, and 101 paroles during his first year in office.
However the Board’s recent progress still faces incredible challenges. Inadequate funding, staffing issues, and political attacks from opponents of justice reform contributed to a string of recent controversies that led to the resignation of the Board’s Executive Director. Long-term funding problems with Oklahoma’s reentry system also have hampered parole reform. Parole conditions often are expensive and challenging. Paroled Oklahomans typically are required to drive to numerous monthly meetings even when many of those who have been recently released lack a driver’s license or easy access to transportation. Many are required to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in court and supervision costs just to avoid re-arrest. These conditions incentivize people to waive parole and simply wait for their sentence to end. Smart investments in parole resources, as well as better investments in both reentry and diversion programs to keep those struggling with addiction and mental health crisis out of the justice system, can accelerate positive progress.
Investments in reentry and best practices are necessary to build on progress
Evidence-based reentry support systems, in conjunction with national best practices in parole, reduce crime and lower the likelihood of rearrest. Despite these facts, Oklahoma funds no comprehensive statewide reentry system. Incarceration in Oklahoma is 13 times more expensive than probation or parole supervision, but the Department of Corrections spent around 5 percent of its FY 2019 budget on probation and parole services. As of July 27, 2020, there were 22,346 people in custody at state corrections facilities in Oklahoma, and there were more than 30,000 people on DOC probation, parole, GPS monitoring, and community sentencing. This level of funding is woefully inadequate for more than 30,000 people, and it has produced predictably bad outcomes. In FY 2015 around 25 percent of all prison admissions in Oklahoma were for a violation of supervision, and the majority of those violations did not constitute new crimes. These technical violations were for things like missing a meeting because of an inability to find a ride. Justice-involved Oklahomans are returning to prison too often simply because they lack basic supports to thrive in the community. Parole officers statewide average 100 cases per officer. This is much higher than recommended best practices, and it leaves many formerly incarcerated Oklahomans without sufficient support after release, effectively setting them up to fail.
Oklahoma can look to other states to model successful, properly-funded supervision. In Texas, investments in reentry and community supervision for those released from prison have contributed to reductions in crime and preempted the need to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on new prisons. Well-funded supervision keeps individuals in the community instead of inside prisons, maintains parents’ connections with their children, and makes it easier for individuals to maintain employment and access treatment. Each of these connections helps deter crime and dramatically reduce the cost of incarceration.
Oklahoma still faces significant challenges in criminal justice reform
Oklahoma stands at a precarious inflection point with criminal justice policy. Since 2016, significant progress has been made in criminal justice reform, but the state’s incarceration rate remains among the highest in the nation. Oklahoma’s prisons and jails face significant threat from the COVID-19 crisis, and the state’s justice system remains rife with racial, geographic, and economic disparities. More incarceration has not resolved these issues. Oklahoma needs increased investment in the economic and social capital of those with justice involvement. Formerly incarcerated Oklahomans deserve an opportunity to change their lives for the better. Oklahoma annually spends more than $500 million on prisons. If state lawmakers redirected some of those funds into evidence-based parole, reentry, and supervision practices, Oklahoma could reduce the cost of incarceration and end the cycle of rearrest that plagues far too many low-income and historically marginalized communities.