Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
When it comes to mass incarceration, Oklahoma is No. 1 (in the world!) But what are the numbers behind this, by now, well known fact? And what effect does it have on Oklahoma’s state budget? Take a look:
- The Department of Corrections daily count for September 4, 2018, was 27,210 incarcerated inmates with 993 awaiting transfer in county jails for a total of 28,203;
- Oklahoma has the world’s highest incarceration rate at 1,079 per 100,000 population;
- The national average rate of incarceration is 698 per 100,000;
- By reaching the national average, like our neighboring state of Kansas, Oklahoma could cut its rate of incarnation by 35%;
- By incarcerating at the national average Oklahoma could cut its prison population by 9,848;
- Annual cost per inmate in Oklahoma in 2015 was $16,497;
- By incarcerating at the national average Oklahoma taxpayers could save $162,462,456 annually.
These facts speak for themselves. But despite the efforts of Governor Fallin, many legislators, and participation by numerous stakeholders, the best the state has been able to do is slow the rate of increase in incarceration. This just proves what we already know: Change is hard. Reasonable people can disagree.
What has been accomplished to slow the flow of people to prison is good, but there can be no doubt it is not enough. It’s not asking too much that we at least strive to be average. We should look at our court system with an open mind and determine what it is that causes us to lock up more people than any other state or country. What is it about our system of justice that produces so many inmates? There are answers and other states have found them. They spend that $163 million on education, mental health, and health instead of prisons.
This is not a liberal agenda or a conservative agenda. So-called liberals tend to focus on things like racial disparity in incarceration, effects of incarceration on children and families, and lack of sentencing proportionality and fairness. So-called conservatives focus on cost to taxpayers, adverse effects on jobs and the economy, and public safety. But most people aren’t totally conservative or liberal. They would like to see solutions that address all these problems. In fact, Oklahomans have taken matters into their own hands at least twice lately and voted for state questions the effect of which is to reduce criminal sanctions and incarceration. With plenty of room for improvement, criminal justice reform will continue next session.