Private prisons have a very bad reputation among criminal justice reformers, and it’s well deserved. In recent years, the ugliest outbreaks of prison violence toward correctional officers and among inmates have occurred in Oklahoma’s private prisons, underlining the dangerous conditions in those facilities. Advocates warn that the profit motive of private prisons leads to cutting costs at the expense of safety and rehabilitation and that the industry’s lobbyists spend big to support punitive justice policies to ensure prisons remain full.

These claims have merit, and no one seeking a fairer, more effective justice system should advocate for more private prisons here or anywhere else. But blaming private prisons for Oklahoma’s deep incarceration problems is misguided, and limited resources should be focused on the important opportunities for progress we have in the current legislative session.

Without private prisons, Oklahoma’s overcrowding would be even worse

As of last month, there are about 26,800 people serving prison sentences in Oklahoma, of whom about 22 percent – 5,900 people – are housed the state’s three privately operated prisons. That’s more than twice the national rate of 9 percent of all state and federal prisoners. In addition, the North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre, Oklahoma – a facility built by the one of the largest private prison companies – is leased and operated by the Department of Corrections.

Oklahoma has been scrambling for years to find beds for its ever-growing prison population, and in the midst of persistent budget shortfalls, officials have crowded more and more people into existing space. But while public facilities are bursting at the seams, housing about 113 percent of their intended capacity, private facilities are at only 99 percent capacity. According to their contracts with the state, the Department of Corrections (DOC) can’t send more inmates to those prisons than they were designed to hold, so overcrowding concentrates in public facilities that are decades old and in dire need of repair.

In his budget presentation this year, DOC Director Joe Allbaugh pointed out that public prisons would be at 151 percent of capacity if they had to absorb all prisoners currently held in private prisons. Until the Legislature appropriates enough money to DOC to build new public facilities – at a cost of about $400 million each – there’s no feasible way to reduce the state’s reliance on private prisons in the near future.

The influence of private prison lobbying in Oklahoma is easily overstated

Advocates often point to campaign donations and lobbying efforts made by private prison giants like the GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly called the Corrections Corporation of America) as evidence that policymakers have a financial stake in pursuing punitive justice policies. Indeed, both companies have contributed thousands of dollars to Oklahoma candidates in recent years, including Governor Fallin. Many powerful state legislators also receive donations from those companies.

Contrary to the expectations of some advocates, however, these contributions haven’t dissuaded Governor Fallin from being among the most outspoken advocates for criminal justice reform in the last two years. At the end of the 2017 regular session, she publicly called upon the Chairman of the committee overseeing criminal justice to pass several bills aimed at reducing prison growth. She has kept up the pressure this year, citing justice reform as a main request in her State of the State address before the 2018 legislative session. This is not the kind of advocacy one would expect from a politician in the pocket of a special interest.

Lawmakers and advocates should focus their efforts on smart ways to reduce prison growth

Oklahoma’s corrections system is in deep crisis, and the most pressing need is for reforms that divert offenders away from prison and toward evidence-based supervision and rehabilitation programs. Lawmakers can avoid all prison growth over the next ten years if they pass the Governor’s Justice Reform Task Force proposals in their entirety, saving the state nearly $2 billion and keeping over 9,000 people out of prison by 2026. Advocates should make every effort to ensure that they do.

It’s not a coincidence that private prison companies saw their stock rise after the 2016 elections. At the federal level, there has been a marked backlash against the criminal justice reform movement, and there are good reasons for concern about a more aggressive approach to drug crimes. The political dynamics within Oklahoma, however, are very different. There’s widespread bipartisan agreement on the need to change our approach to justice, and the fiercest opposition is coming from prosecutors, not corporate interests. Reducing incarceration in all its forms should be our number one concern; focusing on the problems of private prisons is a luxury we don’t yet have.