What's been done and what still needs doing on corrections reform

Production still from 'Women Behind Bars,' a new documentary on incarcerated women in Oklahoma (http://womenbehindbarsthefilm.com/). Photo is by Sarah Warmker.

Oklahoma leads the nation for percentage of incarcerated women and is near the top for incarcerated men. Our prisons are at more than 95 percent capacity with only 70 percent staffing, which creates a dangerous environment for both guards and inmates. The prison population in Oklahoma has doubled since the mid 1990s to almost 26,000, and absent policy changes it was forecasted to grow by 400 prisoners per year. Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections budget has been reduced by about $43 million, or 8.6 percent, since 2009.

After years of talk but little action, state leaders made real progress on corrections reform this year. Thanks to the leadership of House Speaker Kris Steele, Governor Mary Fallin and Senator Patrick Anderson, among others, the legislature passed HB 2131 to expand community sentencing and electronic monitoring, as well as streamline the parole process.

These measures deserve praise, but much still needs to be done. To understand why, we can first look at what HB 2131 is expected to do, what will be the financial impact, and the limitations that remain.

Community Sentencing

Under community sentencing, an offender serves his or her sentence outside of prison under the supervision of a probation officer. Offenders are given a probation plan that lays out restrictions on their movement and activities and identifies needs such as substance abuse or mental health treatment, employment skills training, and education. Community sentencing systems are overseen by a local group of citizens and elected officials in each judicial district who work with DOC to locate treatment providers and resources.

HB 2131 expanded who is eligible for community sentencing. Specifically, it made eligible non-violent offenders with less than two prior felony convictions but a high Level of Supervision Inventory (LSI). An LSI score is a measure of how likely someone is to reoffend.

According to Amy Santee, a Senior Program Officer with the George Kaiser Family Foundation which sponsors the Women in Recovery program, research shows that while someone with a high LSI score is statistically more likely to offend, putting them in prison does not reduce the likelihood of re-offending after their sentences are over.

Santee said that many are labelled high-risk by the LSI because they lack jobs or homes or they have an addiction. Community sentencing seeks to provide these people both supervision and the help they need to rehabilitate, instead of rotating them in and out of prison.

In FY10, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections received 1,373 non-violent offenders who would have qualified for community sentencing under the expanded eligibility. The Department of Corrections estimates that 1/3rd of those newly eligible, or 453 additional offenders, will receive a community sentence. Since incarceration costs the state an average of $3,807 per offender per year and community sentencing costs only $2,200 annually, DOC estimates this measure will save close to $730,000.

Electronic Monitoring

A similar rationale is behind the expansion of electronic monitoring programs (EMP) in HB 2131. Out of 9,373 offenders (7,980 male/1,393 female) received by DOC in FY ‘10, the department estimates that 1,756 (1,310 male/446 female) will be eligible for electronic monitoring instead of prison. Eligibility is limited to offenders who are assessed as presenting minimal risk to facility security and public safety, have sentences of five years or less, and do not fall under one of the categories restricted by statute from being in EMP, such as drug traffickers, sex offenders, or escapees from a penal institution within the previous 10 years.

According to a DOC analysis:

For many of these offenders, the short sentences they are intended to serve in combination with the limited resources of the Department do not allow access to needed programs and services during their incarceration.  Instead, these offenders are imprisoned at considerable expense to the State of Oklahoma and the Department and are returned to the community (49% percent with and 51% percent without supervision).

With an estimated 240 additional female offenders and 480 additional male offenders in the program, the DOC estimates that it would save about $3.5 million.

Streamlining Parole

The third component of HB 2131 is reforms to the parole process meant to increase the percentage of offenders granted parole. Oklahoma lags significantly behind national averages for the percentage of inmates approved for parole. The state Pardon and Parole Board has been less likely to approve paroles than in other states. On top of that, Oklahoma is the only state that requires the Governor to give her own approval after the parole board makes its recommendation.

DOC Director Justin Jones said that the parole board has been recommending 29 percent of parole applicants this year, and Governor Fallin has been approving about 2/3rds of that 29 percent. He said the national average for parole approvals ranges from 39 to 45 percent.

HB 2131 changes the process so that if the governor does not make any decision on paroles of non-violent offenders in 30 days, the parole board’s recommendation is automatically adopted. The governor will still be required to approve parole for violent offenders. The bill also created minimum qualifications for Pardon and Parole Board members.

A study by the Northpointe Institute for Public Management estimated the annual savings from increased paroles at $9.7 million to $53 million, depending on the size of the reduction in prison populations.

More To Be Done

Despite the significant improvements of HB 2131, we are unlikely to see large immediate savings. Jones said there are already 1,500 to 1,700 state prisoners backed up in county jails, so any beds freed up by reforms will not stay empty for long.

Jones said big savings don’t come until the department is able to “close a cost center” (i.e. shut down a prison). “At some point we will get there,” he said. Because a larger proportion of female inmates will be eligible for parole, community sentencing, and EMP, Jones said he expects the reforms will enable DOC to shut down a women’s correctional facility after 18 months.

Many aspects of the system still need reform, such as lighter sentences for non-violent crimes, more rehabilitation programs within prison, more reentry programs for released prisoners, and community efforts within high crime neighborhoods.

“I think the focus really will be on eliminating those pathways that increase the likelihood of children becoming adults and going to prison,” Jones said. “You get a bigger investment return by stopping the intergenerational incarceration.”

The good news is lawmakers seem to be taking the problem seriously. Tomorrow morning (June 23), a press conference is scheduled to announce that Oklahoma will become the 15th state to join the Justice Reinvestment initiative, a bipartisan, data-driven effort to reduce recidivism and stop the growth of corrections spending.

Santee said Justice Reinvestment represents a major shift in thinking on corrections policy.

“People are open to recognizing that what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” she said.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

8 thoughts on “What's been done and what still needs doing on corrections reform

  1. Corrections reform needs to begin at conception. Just because some people can physically have children, doesn’t mean they should. In 2009 an estimated 1770 children died as the result of abuse or neglect. There are thousands that make it to adulthood, and repeat the patterns of their parents. Relying on welfare, utility assistance, foodstamps, etc. and continuing to smoke, drink, and neglect their own children. In order to receive state assistance, people need to be required to submit to random urinalysis and birth control.

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