The logic of the “tough on crime” movement holds that punishing people harshly for their offenses — whether violent or nonviolent — is a critical tool to prevent crime. That attitude was the driving force behind criminal justice policy in Oklahoma and across the country for years, and states sent more and more people to prison each year as a result. Although crime has been decreasing steadily since its peak in the early 1990s, the incarceration rate only began dropping slowly in the last 8 years or so.
These national trends, however, mask wide variation in trends among the states. Between 2006 and 2014, California’s imprisonment rate decreased by 27 percent while Arkansas’s increased by 23 percent. Over the same period, the violent crime rate dropped 35 percent in Virginia but increased 32 percent in South Dakota. In Oklahoma, the imprisonment rate rose by 5 percent while the violent crime rate dropped by 21 percent.
As the chart below shows, most states’ violent crime rates fell significantly between 2006 and 2014, while imprisonment rate changes varied widely. The larger circles represent the states with higher imprisonment rates in 2006. In all, 44 states experienced the nationwide trend toward lower violent crime rates, while only 6 states saw increases in violent crime. In spite of the declining violent crime rate in most states, only 26 states saw their imprisonment rates decline.
Source: Brennan Center analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics and FBI data
In this chart Oklahoma stands out as the state with the highest initial incarceration rate in 2006 where incarceration is still growing. Other high incarceration states like Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi have begun to move in the opposite direction; Oklahoma hasn’t.
The wide variation among the states also suggests that incarceration and crime rates simply aren’t very closely related. In truth, the causes of movements in the crime rate are very poorly understood. A comprehensive evaluation of various popular hypotheses estimated that between 1990 and 1999, zero to 7 percent of the crime decline could be attributed to increased incarceration, and no single factor could account for more than 5 percent of the decline with reasonable certainty.
But although the causes of the crime decline are mysterious, there are clear reasons why the imprisonment rate went down in some states and not others. Recognizing that mass incarceration was creating budgetary problems without clear public safety benefits, many states began reforming their criminal justice systems and saw decreases in their prison populations. Other states, including Oklahoma, responded more tepidly. Although Oklahoma’s Justice Reinvestment Act, passed in 2012, contained many of the same reforms that saw success in other states, the poor implementation of the law weakened its effects, and the prison population continued to grow.
The Oklahoma Legislature restarted reform efforts last year with a task force that produced four successful bills to reduce sentences for minor drug and property crimes, give prosecutors more discretion to charge nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors, and expand alternatives to incarceration. Two ballot questions promoted by the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform coalition would push these reforms further. If passed by voters in November, State Question 780 would remove the possibility of a prison sentence for simple drug possession and State Question 781 would direct the savings from diverting people away from prisons into drug and mental health treatment. Initial polling suggests that the ballot questions have strong support.
The experience in other states tells us that we can stop sending so many people to prison without seeing more crime as a result. This year’s reforms are a good start and should have noticeable effects, especially in the short term. But there is still much work to be done; dealing with long-term prison population growth will require confronting overly harsh punishments for more serious offenders, too. As Governor Fallin’s Justice Reform Task Force meets over the coming months, they should focus on ways to make lasting changes to reduce the prison population. Many other states have already shown that simultaneously reducing crime and imprisonment is possible.