The State of Oklahoma: State will soon be top in nation for incarceration
While Oklahoma has always prized individual liberty, it has proven very adept at locking people up.
The state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation. The prison system is operating at 115 percent of capacity. The Department of Corrections director wants two new prisons and a thousand more guards.
“It's a system that's hurting and is going to break, and we're going to have some serious incident if we don't take some corrective action,” Joe Allbaugh said last week.
“We tend to incarcerate everybody who breaks the law as opposed to getting those individuals into some type of program that will help them.”
There are theories about Oklahoma's incarceration rate and its relation to culture and the various social ills that have long troubled the state.
And then there are facts: Oklahoma's crime rates are higher than the national average. And the growth in time served by inmates has risen dramatically.
Oklahoma sends more people to prison per capita than other states and keeps them there longer per capita.
Thus, an incarceration rate that has become an embarrassment to political and business leaders at a time when the state is already the subject of national media attention for its budget chaos and teacher unrest.
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Kris Steele, former Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said recently that Oklahoma, which has long been tops in locking women away, will soon lead the nation in overall incarceration.
Steele has been working for two years to reduce the number of people in prison for nonviolent crimes.
“It's our biggest driver — sending nonviolent offenders to prison for 80 percent longer than the national average, clogging our prison system with offenders who do not pose a risk to the community,” he said in an interview.
According to Department of Corrections statistics compiled last week, 45 percent of the males and 62 percent of the females incarcerated in the state system are in for nonviolent offenses.
Steele is chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, which campaigned successfully in 2016 for a state question, 780, reducing some drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.
The group is now pushing the state Legislature to approve a package of bills that languished last year largely because a House member who used to be a state prosecutor didn't like them. That member, Scott Biggs, took a federal government job and is no longer a player in the matter.
But his views are still represented at the Capitol and in district attorney offices and courthouses around the state.
Many prosecutors and judges believe strongly that the people in prison deserve to be there and that some proposed changes would make communities less safe.
“If you're just focusing on what they're calling a ‘bed' impact in the prison system, you are maybe as an unintended consequence going to negatively affect public safety,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said.
Prater opposed the state question that passed in 2016 but has been working with Gov. Mary Fallin and other district attorneys on a package of criminal justice bills pertaining to nonviolent offenses.
Truth in sentencing
High rates of incarceration are hardly new to the state of Oklahoma or the nation.
The United States leads the world, with about 1.5 million people held in state and federal prisons.
Overcrowding and poor conditions were so common in Oklahoma's prison system in the 1970s and 1980s that a federal judge took control.
It was a move by the state in the mid-1990s that wound up contributing to a big part of the current prison population.
In a tough-on-crime era, Congress offered states federal money for prison construction if they would pass laws requiring people convicted of certain crimes — mostly violent offenses — to serve more of their sentences.
A majority of states, including Oklahoma, passed truth-in-sentencing laws. Oklahoma's law requires 85 percent of the sentence to be served.
Currently, nearly two-thirds of the males and one-quarter of the females incarcerated in Oklahoma for violent offenses must serve 85 percent of their sentences for a lengthy list of violent crimes.
Allbaugh, the state corrections director, said the 85 percent law “is killing us.”
“Most of those are medium classification and that's where our growing bubble is,” he said.
After serving most of their sentences, many of those inmates decline to be considered for parole so they can leave prison without any supervision, Allbaugh said.
Some studies have pointed out that the same situation exists for offenders in all categories in Oklahoma. Many decline parole to avoid post-prison supervision. And many return to prison.
Of the 3,677 inmates released without supervision in the 2007 fiscal year, 54 percent were rearrested within three years, according to a report by the Council of State Governments.
The requirements for serving most of a sentence have increasingly applied to life sentences or ones of 50 or more years.
The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group, reported early this year that one in eight prisoners in Oklahoma is serving a sentence of life with parole; life without parole; or a sentence of 50 years or more, what is sometimes referred to as “virtual life.”
“The life-sentenced population is at an all-time high both in Oklahoma and the nation as a whole,” the report states. “The pace of growth in life sentences has been swifter in Oklahoma than in nearby states and the national average.”
Predictably, perhaps, the number of aging prisoners has risen: In 1994, the Sentencing Project reports, fewer than 900 Oklahoma inmates were over 50. In 2014, there were more than 5,000.
Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, said Oklahoma reform efforts should focus on reducing sentence lengths and the 85 percent threshold.
“Most people age out of crime,'' she said.
'People are staying about twice as long'
Most categories of crime have dropped in the past two decades. Property crime in Oklahoma in 2016 was at its lowest level since 1973, and eight states had higher rates than Oklahoma in 2016.
Violent crime has dropped 17 percent since 1998. In 2016, a dozen states had higher rates of violent crime than Oklahoma.
Total arrests for property and violent crime in Oklahoma are down 34 percent since 1998, according to FBI reports.
But the number of people incarcerated in Oklahoma is up 22 percent since 1998.
That is at least partly attributable to drug offenses.
According to a study by the Council of State Governments, “drug possession is still the most common felony offense among people admitted to Oklahoma state prisons.”
At the end of 2015, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections reported that 8,281 inmates were incarcerated for drug- or alcohol-related offenses. That was 29 percent of the population.
In 1995, there were 5,350 inmates incarcerated for drug- or alcohol-related offenses, about 26 percent of the prison population.
Felicity Rose, a criminal justice expert, has studied Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma has about three-quarters of the people who come into prison come in for nonviolent offenses,” she said in an interview last week. “Nationally, it's more like 60 percent
“Overall, I think the difference is Oklahoma treats people very differently for nonviolent crimes.
“People stay in prison for about the same amount of time for violent crimes as in other states. But for nonviolent crimes they stay 80 to 100 percent longer than other states.”
Oklahomans convicted of drug possession spend an average of 20 months in prison, about twice the national average, she said.
“And that's kind of true across the board for nonviolent offenses — for property crimes. People are staying about twice as long in Oklahoma as in other states and they also are sending a lot more people to prison for those crimes, per capita.”
Rose does research for FWD.us, an advocacy group started by technology industry leaders.
The criminal justice reforms already advanced by voters in 2016 and the ones now being considered at the state Capitol are aimed at alternatives to prison for some nonviolent offenses.
In 2016, more than 110,000 Oklahomans signed petitions supporting a ballot question to reclassify some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
The petition stated that the state's incarceration rate was “inconsistent with Oklahoma values.”
Later that year, State Question 780 passed with 58 percent of the vote, with the support of a diverse coalition that included civil liberties groups and business leaders. The ACLU financed most of the campaign, but Devon Energy and BancFirst also chipped in.
The opposition came from some district attorneys — and Biggs, the state representative — who warned that it was a reckless liberalization of drug laws.
In Oklahoma County, the state's most populous county, the impact of the state question is evident in the types of cases filed.
In the first two and a half months of this year, there were 29 percent fewer felony cases filed compared to the same time frame in 2017.
Despite that, most engaged in the criminal justice debate expect Oklahoma, which has long led the nation in imprisoning women, to become the number one incarceration state overall, overtaking Louisiana.
Louisiana enacted a series of reforms to “steer people convicted of less serious crimes away from prison, strengthen incarceration alternatives, reduce prison terms for those who can be safely supervised in the community, and remove barriers to re-entry,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Over 10 years, the reforms are projected to reduce the prison and community supervision populations by 10 and 12 percent, respectively.”
Like the state question of 2016, the criminal justice reform bills under consideration have the backing of the business community.
Fred Morgan, a former Republican House member who now heads the State Chamber, penned a column last week calling the state's incarceration rate “particularly embarrassing” since it's hard to see a link to improved public safety.
“Excessive use of incarceration takes an immense toll on Oklahoma families and businesses,” he wrote. “When we lock up droves of Oklahomans, we reduce our state's workforce. And when Oklahomans are behind bars for extended periods, they cannot meaningfully contribute to our society or economy.”
Allbaugh, who runs the state's prison system, welcomes reforms but said he's concerned “we're just nibbling around the edges.”
Allbaugh said that lawmakers need to focus on helping the people already in prison. He mocked judges who send repeat offenders to prison “so they can get some help.”
“There is no help in prisons, not for that kind of situation,” Allbaugh said.
“We have gutted our programs over the last 20 years. We have fired the teachers and instructors (who) help make these citizens better individuals.
“We need to invest in these individuals. They're human beings. And all they have in prison in hope. And what little hope they have — the state of Oklahoma seems to be robbing them of that hope for a bright future.”
CONTRIBUTING: KYLE SCHWAB AND JOSH DULANEY, STAFF WRITERS
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education... Read more ›
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in... Read more ›