Sean Wallace is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, an association representing employees of the Department of Corrections.
During her 2015 inaugural address, Governor Mary Fallin told the crowd assembled on the Capitol steps that one of the three areas Oklahoma “must improve or risk stifling our forward momentum” was “over-incarceration.” She went on to say that “year after year another issue that holds back our state, breaks apart our families and leads to poverty is crime and incarceration.”
The Governor deserves credit for saying that Oklahoma locks up too many of its citizens because too few elected officials are willing to say that. To do so is to risk being called “liberal” or “soft on crime.”
Over-incarceration has become an en vogue topic for conservatives, and has even led to successful prison reform efforts in red states like Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina. Staunch conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Rand Paul now refer to budget-busting prison spending as a sign of big government encroaching on the lives of private citizens.
Oklahoma has held the dubious distinction of incarcerating more of its citizens than just about anywhere in the world for a long time, and lawmakers have spent considerable time and taxpayer dollars looking for reasons why. Unfortunately for them, the studies always tell lawmakers to do the one thing they’ve never had the political courage to do, which is reform the state’s criminal sentencing laws.
Oklahoma is facing a budget shortfall this year nearing half a billion dollars, or about the same amount it costs to manage the Department of Corrections each year. Corrections employees are pleading for adequate funding to hire and retain the staff they need to manage the prisons safely. More Oklahomans are locked up in Oklahoma’s prisons than ever in our history, and that number just continues to increase year after year. It’s time for lawmakers to take action. There are multiple opportunities for them to do so.
Conservative prison reformers, judges and defense attorneys agree that judges should have discretion when sentencing offenders. Senate Bill 184 would allow for probation for certain non-violent felons with multiple convictions. Under Senate Bill 211, the maximum sentence for an offender committing a non-violent crime within ten years of a previous conviction would be 20 years instead of life.
House Bill 1117 and Senate Bill 112 allow offenders serving time for “85 percent crimes” to earn good behavior credits, so that once they’ve completed 85 percent of their sentence, those credits can shorten the remainder of the time they must serve. The bill is strongly supported by corrections employees because they feel these credits provide a strong incentive for this growing segment of inmates to behave while incarcerated.
Senate Bill 580 creates a special parole docket for elderly and terminally ill inmates, who could potentially be released to community supervision, saving the State millions in medical costs and freeing up expensive prison beds.
House Bill 1518 creates the Justice Safety Valve Act. This bill, championed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, would allow courts to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences when they are not in the interest of justice and doing so would not endanger the public. The bill has several limitations, including not allowing a court to waive mandatory minimums for sex offenders or those who committed their crime with actual, or the threat of, serious physical violence.
House Bill 1574 reforms a part of Oklahoma law that requires certain non-violent drug offenders to receive life without parole sentences. According to a report by the ACLU, at least 49 Oklahomans will die behind bars for committing non-violent crimes. Rep. Williams’ legislation would change the mandatory life without parole sentence to one that has a range of punishment from 20 years to life.
None of these bills provide for the immediate discharge of inmates or would threaten public safety, but a federal takeover of our prisons or continued inaction on this crisis could. It’s time for Oklahoma to do the right thing, which fortunately happens to be the least expensive for the taxpayer: pass common sense sentencing reform laws now.