How Can Oklahoma Safely Reduce Incarceration?

Oklahoma’s incarceration rate has moved from first in the nation to third in the nation in the last five years. This reduction is due largely to voter-driven ballot initiatives that reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, as well as the change of many low-level felony sentences. These changes occurred in the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions and capitalized on the state’s movement toward reducing its number of individuals incarcerated. Many of these changes were based on recommendations from the 2016-2017 Justice Reform Task Force.  

Even with this positive momentum, Oklahoma still has a lot of work to do. For many parts of the state, there are no effective or robust alternatives to prison, nor are there adequate mental health or drug rehabilitation services. Money saved from the 2016 ballot initiative SQ781 would capture resources from the reduction in admissions to prison and forward them to the communities in the form of preventive services. Those savings have yet to be declared by the state.

Meanwhile, thousands of Oklahomans spend their lives behind prison walls, often for non-violent and low-level felonies. Most of the citizens agree that the bloated prison system is a problem, but are unsure how to proceed with reducing the population while maintaining public safety. 

This article discusses five proven ways that Oklahoma can safely reduce incarceration rates. These strategies have been successfully implemented in other states that have seen significant decreases in incarceration rates over a ten-year period. 

Most states that have had successful reductions in prison populations have also had drops in crime, Oklahoma being one. This further supports the concept that when justice-involved people have help to reintegrate, find jobs, and care for their families, recidivism drops.

1. Bipartisan State Leadership and Inter-Agency Bridge Building 

Michigan has been able to reduce their prison population by 20.1% (10,332 inmates) from 2006-2016 based largely on recommendations from the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Prison Overcrowding. Those recommendations included more robust reentry planning for inmates reentering society, the elimination of parole revocations for technical violations, and equipping county courts with prison diversion/community sentencing options.

Most prominently, Michigan passed sentence reforms in 2002 that retroactively removed mandatory minimum sentencing. This, coupled with improved parole guidelines, and changes to drug sentencing allowed Michigan to reduce its prison population by 1.8% from 2003 to 2004. As more reforms were implemented, higher reductions were realized. 

These reforms received significant support from the Governor of Michigan, as well as from the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and the Michigan legislature. MDOC currently has one of the most robust inmate reentry programs in the country, which has seen a 20% reduction in recidivism. All of these entities as well as the courts and prosecutors worked together to implement a better approach to criminal justice.

Courtesy of the New York Times

Governor Kevin Stitt, who took office in January 2017, campaigned on the promise of criminal justice reform. He presided over the largest commutation in US history (427 Oklahoma citizens were released), which was no small feat.  

To advance criminal justice reform efforts, Governor Stitt assembled a task force to study and make recommendations on criminal justice reform.  The Executive Order enabling the RESTORE task force specifically directed an analysis at how to reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate, reduce the recidivism rate, and enhance and establish diversion programs. The RESTORE Task Force report did not compile specific legislative changes or agency rule amendments that would impact the incarceration rate. RESTORE asked for more time to study the issue. The issue has been studied many times over since 2016, while other states have been successful implementing parole reform, revocation reform, and sentencing reform, all while Oklahoma has continued studying the issue.

Simultaneously, the legislature crafted legislation creating a task force under the direction of Attorney General Mike Hunter focused on sentencing reform and felony reclassification.   The Attorney General’s Criminal Justice Reclassification Council put out a draft of a sentencing reform matrix in a report earlier this year.  However, a cursory review of the draft matrix appears to add beds to the prison population, according to an analysis conducted by FWD.US. The statute that enables the Council requires that any recommendations keep prison beds neutral or decrease the population. Since COVID-19 began in March 2020, the Council has met once, and deferred any action. Their November meeting was canceled.

The promise of sweeping criminal justice reform in Oklahoma has gone largely unanswered and unaddressed. Oklahoma needs united and dedicated agency, legislative, and gubernatorial leadership if it is ever to truly reduce the prison population.

2. Rely on Data and Experts 

The field of criminal justice data and research has exploded since the early 2000s. Corrections and state mental health departments have used data to track and understand the impact of incarceration since data became widely available. However, prosecutors and law enforcement rarely use data or tracking to understand ways to reduce crime, and in many instances do not have the infrastructure available to collect certain data points.  Instead, they have focused largely on anecdotal, individual stories to justify long sentences and tough-on-crime policies. As incarceration and crime data has become more prevalent, the numbers have shown a troubling reality. 

While we know that America incarcerates more people than anywhere in the world, we have also learned that incarceration is largely ineffective as a way of deterring future crime. In addition, incarceration has devastating effects on communities. In fact, over-incarceration often leads communities to be less safe because prison can have a criminogenic effect when low-risk people are given long prison sentences.

States that have seen the most significant reductions in prison populations have used reliable data and criminal justice experts to capture the true cost of the criminal justice system and make informed recommendations to revamp the system.

In response to a lack of transparency and data in prosecution, Ex-Civil Rights Attorney, now elected District Attorney of Philadelphia Larry Krasner has prosecutors announce the cost to incarcerate a defendant if his office is recommending a prison sentence. He states that “fiscal responsibility is a justice issue,” and he believes discussing it in court is his duty as someone who has promised to battle mass incarceration.

Other states have used sentencing commissions to compile and analyze criminal justice data to make recommendations to improve the criminal justice system.  South Carolina reduced its prison population by 14% from 2008-2016. Their Senate Criminal Justice Task Force recognized that the problem was bigger than a partisan talking point. They recommended the establishment of a bi-partisan, inter-branch Sentencing Reform Commission. The Commission spent a year gathering data, performing analysis, as well as producing forecasts of costs and population models.  As a result of their work, the state has been able to close seven correctional facilities and reduce returns to prison by 57% (through 2016). 

Mississippi also relied on outside data to achieve their population reduction of 18% from 2008 through 2016. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Crime & Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice, through sponsorship of the federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, provided assistance to Mississippi legislators and stakeholders who wanted to battle back against a 5% increase of the population in 2011-12

An outside perspective and dedicated number crunching are just two of the benefits of getting outside help to reform a state’s criminal code. These bodies have experience in other states and have fought (and won) policy battles that Oklahoma has yet to even begin to discuss.

3. Strengthen Community Reentry and Community Engagement

Common among all states that have had significant population reductions is a rededication to reentry and social services for those leaving prison. It is common sense that if the corrections budget shrinks, those resources must go to helping divert justice-involved populations from prions and assist those returning to their communities for long-term success. 

As mentioned above, Michigan’s DOC built a department dedicated to reentry services for those who are exiting the system. Rhode Island implemented significant justice reforms in the early ’00s, which led to strengthened, evidence-based reentry programming. These changes reduced returns to prison from 54% to 48% from 2004-2009. In 2011, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee assembled the Governor’s Steering Committee on Reentry which helped the state apply for federal grants from the Department of Justice to improve reentry services. These efforts together contributed to a remarkable reduction in returns to prison of 37% through 2016. These numbers continue to improve as state-wide reentry contracts and special reentry grants are implemented. 

South Carolina specifically saw significant reductions in returns to prison in the age group of 17-25-year-olds. The recidivism rate for this age range dropped from 55% to between 21 and 30%. This was accomplished by a prison program that matches job skills to available work for those exiting the system. There is also an Intensive Aftercare Program that is in place only for young offenders. This program helps them by providing evidence-based programming that focuses on cognitive restructuring.

Reentry is one of the areas most often overlooked in movements to reduce the prison population but it is an important piece of the system. Preventing those who have reentered prison multiple times from returning requires challenging and systemic change, but it shows significant savings when the right interventions are used. 

4. Diversion from Prison as a First Priority, Not a Last Resort

While reentry is a big piece of the puzzle, there is new research that shows the importance of diversion from prison in the first place. Prison can have long term damaging effects on the individual and society at large that are difficult to overcome. It should be Oklahoma’s first priority to provide prison alternatives that allow people to keep their families together while under supervision or a structured alternative court program.

These programs are cheaper than prison—to incarcerate someone for a year, it costs taxpayers an average of $19,000. To send someone 

through an alternative drug court program is averaged at $5,000 per year. These programs already exist. Misdemeanor drug courts in Oklahoma County have seen great success with a structured sanctions model. The problem is that they are partially offender-funded. This closes off access to many people who could use the help but cannot afford to pay a program for monitoring, urinalysis tests, and phone calls (check-in calls must be made from a landline).

Each of the states that have undergone significant reforms has embraced diversion programs as an essential mechanism to reduce those incarcerated populations. The Pew Research Trust made several recommendations to South Carolina to strengthen community supervision as a mode of prison diversion. These recommendations allow for more structured sanctions when there is a parole violation so that the first resort is not always a return to prison.

Prison Diversion programs are able to employ evidence-based public health strategies rather than the overly punitive, costly interventions often employed while incarcerated. In Oklahoma, county drug courts and mental health courts are strongest in the urban centers. But there is a lot of variation in how these courts are employed across the state. A standard evidence-based sanctions model, risk and needs assessments to determine what resources are needed, and eliminating the offender-funded model would go a long way to making alternative courts a viable resource for Oklahomans in the court system.

5. Comprehensive Sentencing Reform 

Courtesy of the Oklahoma Gazette

During their reform efforts, South Carolina State Senator Gerald Malloy described South Carolina’s criminal laws as, “…a hodgepodge of laws enacted in recent decades, often as knee-jerk reactions to a particular local crime.” This description could not be more apt for Oklahoma.  Oklahoma’s criminal code is like a mutating monster. There are 683 felonies on the books, but 95% of the population is incarcerated for the same 50 felonies. Each of the felonies on the books has its own specific range, and often the statutes criminalize a wide range of conduct.

Most policy wonks will declare that a wide range of punishment plus a wide range of punished conduct can easily lead to an abuse of discretion in charging and sentencing. These types of statutes also confuse and muddy the deterrent impact of criminal statutes.

Oklahoma has little hope of significantly reducing our incarceration without widespread and data-supported sentencing reform. Twenty-two states have established sentencing commissions or agencies to monitor and review criminal sentencing. These bodies robustly study their states’ incarceration numbers, the number of felony filings per year, and the prison capacity numbers. With this information, the commissions make recommendations to their states’ legislatures every year for packages of laws to pass that keep the criminal code updated.

Considering Oklahoma’s politicization of criminal justice reform, and the struggle the state has with mass incarceration, Oklahoma should have sentencing oversight. While task forces and legislative champions are one thing, this type of reform needs focus and legitimization. To ignore reality and expect this problem to fix itself is naïve and negligent.  

Another example, Utah, established a sentencing commission which recommended that all felonies fit into three degrees: third-degree felonies are punishable up to five years, second-degree felonies are punishable up to fifteen years, and first degree felonies are punishable up to an indeterminate number over five years including life. This structure was passed into law and effectively addresses the complexity of their sentence code. This may not be a proper solution for Oklahoma, but without a dedicated body to prepare the data, and push for change, we will never know.

12 thoughts on “How Can Oklahoma Safely Reduce Incarceration?

    • Author gravatar

      Something needs to be done for those who can prove innocence. When judges look at factual evidence that proves innocence, but calls it “speculation”, that person is forced to spend more time incarcerated, when it has been proven that person was cleared via DNA testing. Judges need to be held accountable for this miscarriage of justice.

    • Author gravatar

      Great article. If you would like I will share a recoding with you. You might want to use it for another article. I have released it but please feel free to. It’s a convo with COO at ODOC. LOTS MORE but one thing at a time. This takes a UNITED EFFORT-and we must stand together.

    • Author gravatar

      They need to change that 85% that would help alot , like Mississippi did they lowered theirs to 65% Oklahoma needs to get onboard and make it retroactive.

    • Author gravatar

      True reform will have to start at local level. Our DA’s and Judges need to look at all options not just Prison. They are making Millions sentencing them to Prison. And holding them in County Jails. Drug offenders need Rehabilitation not Prison wher there is more drugs than on streets. They need to be sentenced to IN House rehabilitation 1 to 2 yrs would be cheaper than Prison. And they would get real help. They need to look at Drug offence and Nonviolent offences. And offer them Programs. That are at 65% or less.

    • Author gravatar

      My daughter-in-law’s twin brother was stopped by OHP for driving too slow. He was escorted to front seat of trooper’s car. He had no drugs or alcohol in his system; he was cooperative. After the trooper found that he was driving under suspension he came around and placed him in a choke hold. When my family member put his hands to his throat the trooper said he was resisting but a choke impeads your breathing thus you try to loosen the grip so you can breathe. That is survival, not resisting arrest. The trooper told him if he didn’t stop resisting that he would shoot him. Then he shot him in the back. He spent 22 days in the hospital.upon release he was transported to jail where he waited 18 months for his jury trial. At trial the prosecution called 12 police officers to testify but the expert witness for the defense was not allowed to testify. Our family member has a long history of addiction and was waiting for a bed in treatment when this happened. He had all his belongings in his truck. After he was taken by ambulance to hospital the officers returned to search his truvk that had been left running on the side of the road. When troopers searched it later they claimed to find drugs and a gun. He ended up with charges that seemed shockingly harsh. His trial ended with guilty verdicts and term of Life in Prison. He is not a saint, has worried his family for many years with alcohol and meth addiction, but he didn’t rob, steal, murder anyone that fateful night. I know he needs help and must be held accountable but life in prison? We all want safe communities that are free from violent crime but sending our chemically dependent and mentally ill citizens to waste their lives in prison is not the answer. I plan to advocate in my community for prison sentencing reform and improved prison conditions for our inmates. Prayerfully submitted. Glory be to God.

    • Author gravatar

      I am for the reduction of 85%. I have a real problem with the wrongful conviction. I did not realize how many wrongful there was. But I was in the court of Carmille Sulvetta. Evidence admitted into trial found in the middle of a road. Was not seen going in but found coming out. 3 officer found guilty of planting drugs 2 of which were part of the search. The main codefendent says she didnt know state asked if she tried to stop them, everyone said no. The main kid said how do you stop something you don’t know about. Bring it to the attention of the governor’s office and they say file commutation. One of the pardon and parole officer says I will not give commutation to a violent offenders. So we have an no win situation. It needs to change.

    • Author gravatar

      Im an ex felon. Needless to say change isn’t changed until its changed. Changed mind and a changed heart. From 22 -32 i spent my.life in jails prisons and institutions. Im 40 today. When we get there we all want out usually we don’t think about what we gonna do when we get out to keep us out. We normally take the “figure it out when i get there” route which normally leads to past behaviors because we have no skills tools or guidance which is normally what got us in the situation we in. We have to unlearn years of learned behaviour and many of us did not have the proper guidance from the beginning so we lean into society that shuns us because of what we don’t know wasn’t taught or shown and i get it its nobody responsibility to raise someone elses child especially to raise a grown up but as a community it is your our my responsibility so that we can stop recidivism. Give the hope. Oklahoma is pretty good with felon friendly jobs i admit at least i haven’t had a problem but the structure and love and routine and encouragement and to know that someone believes in you someone is depending on you someone says yes you can while those voices say no you cant. I guess what im trying to say here everyone doesn’t have the love support or resources they need to be productive! The felony once completed give them 6 months supervised after released then expunge they record you gotta let them fly and trust they will make better choices stop it with all the court cost fines they gotta eat get a roof a car a license car insurance etc then you want them to commit to you with these payments they cant get ahead. Give them they drivers license test after completing the 6 months probation free the first one is free i know right it sounds like your blessing them for being bad no what your doing is putting a limit on punishment if you put your baby in time out how long do you hold them accountable for doing wrong and how soon do you forgive them my point exactly i could go on and on with how we could help the question is when will we help

      • Author gravatar

        Bless you, Erica. I wish you the very best in your life today. I am hoping and praying the we, as the citizens of Oklahoma, can work together to make changes to our criminal justice system that allow for second chances and pardoning of felonies for those who change their lives. I also agree that the 85% law should be amended.

    • Author gravatar

      What the committee who is writing on reform needs is to have a few people who have been to prison like myself on a non violent felony who are interested like myself to help them with ideas on fixing this problem in Oklahoma. For like myself I know what its gonna take from experience to change our reform system where it actually is gonna make a difference. Since I’m familiar with how life is in there. It actually changed my life but not from help of prison system. But from my own desire to be better and now I’m getting a degree so I can help others.

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