Oklahoma has long led the country and the world in its rate of incarcerating women, but in 2018, the state assumed the position of being the number one incarcerator of its citizens, both men and women, as Louisiana, the state which had long led the nation in incarcerating its citizens, decreased its imprisonment rate. In the past few years, a number of criminal justice reform measures have been passed by the Legislature, or by the voters, aimed at decreasing Oklahoma’s incarceration rate. What have these reforms accomplished and what can Oklahoma learn from Louisiana’s success in reducing its incarceration rate?
The State of Incarceration in Oklahoma
Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate of all U.S. states, sending 1,079 of every 100,000 residents to jail. To compare, the average incarceration rate across the United States is 698 people per 100,000. In 2016, the Department of Corrections housed 26,606 people in its prisons—down from an all-time high of 28,871 in 2015. However, this growth is mostly the product of the 1980s and 90s. In 1980, the prison population was 4,595; in 1990, the population was 12,091; and by 2000, the population was 23,258. Oklahoma spends an average of around $16,500 per prisoner, per year.
The cost of jailing so many people continues to eat into the state budget. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is the fifth-largest state agency by appropriation, receiving $517 million from the Legislature in the 2018 session. The ODOC has already submitted a $1.5 billion budget request for the upcoming fiscal year, requesting that the Legislature fund the construction of two new prison facilities.
In 2017, Oklahoma’s Justice Reform Task Force found that 75% of people admitted to Oklahoma prisons were sentenced for nonviolent crimes, more than half of these individuals had one or no prior felony convictions, and 80% have no history of violent crimes. Prison sentences for nonviolent criminals in Oklahoma were also found to be longer than in most states.
What Criminal Justice Reforms Have Already Accomplished in Oklahoma
In November of 2016, Oklahomans approved State Questions 780 and 781, the most substantive criminal justice reform measures in recent history, reducing sentences for certain non-violent drug crimes and property crimes and redirecting any saved money to rehabilitative programs. Oklahomans’ demonstration that they want the state to spend less money incarcerating people and focus more on rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders has motivated legislators to pass a number of bills with the same goals. Notably, Senate Bill 1098, which passed during the 2018 Legislative Session, created the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to review the state’s criminal statutes and recommend possible changes to the Legislature involving decriminalization or sentencing reform. The State Chamber of Oklahoma designates one delegate to sit on the Council.
The Governor’s Justice Reform Task Force issued 27 recommendations to the Legislature aimed at decreasing Oklahoma’s prison population and reducing the long-term costs of the criminal justice system. The 27 policy recommendations included suggestions such as reducing sentences for non-violent crimes and establishing more pathways for prisoners to reduce their sentence once they are in prison. None of the policies has been adopted by the Legislature thus far.
What Oklahoma Can Learn from Louisiana
For years, Louisiana led the nation and the world in the number of people it sent to jail. Desiring to reduce the state’s prison population and the cost of corrections on the state’s budget, Governor John Bel Edwards called for a Criminal Justice Reform Task Force to begin meeting in 2015 to investigate ways to reduce the prison population and prioritize prison beds for criminals who pose a public safety threat. The Task Force completed its report in March 2017, and presented the Legislature with 21 policy recommendations, many of which are similar to the recommendations offered to the Oklahoma Legislature by Governor Mary Fallin’s similar task force.
In its 2017 Legislative Session, the Louisiana State Legislature took action on the task force’s recommendations and passed a series of 10 bipartisan, criminal justice reform bills which were signed into law by Governor Edwards. Among the reforms signed into law were bills requiring that fines be tailored to an individual’s ability to pay them and requiring debt repayment and forgiveness plans be considered by courts, increasing opportunities for parole and early release for prisoners with long-term prison sentences, reducing penalties for non-violent crimes, and streamlining the occupational licensure process for applicants with criminal histories.
Following the passage and implementation of the reforms, the task force met again to analyze the bills’ impact on the state’s prison population. In addition to dropping the state from being the top incarcerator in the country, the reforms are outpacing expectations and should decrease Louisiana’s prison population by 10% and save the state an estimated $262 million over ten years.
Many of the issues faced by Louisiana are similar to those faced by Oklahoma, including large portions of each state’s prison populations being made up of nonviolent offenders, limited rehabilitative options for offenders, such as drug courts, and hurdles to successful reentry and reintegration following the completion of a prison sentence, such as occupational license limitations on convicts. Oklahoma can learn from Louisiana’s success in reducing its prison population, cutting spending on incarceration, and helping former prisoners reenter the workforce. Governor-elect Stitt has already expressed interest in continuing to reform Oklahoma’s criminal justice system and the Legislature will have plenty of opportunities to do so in the upcoming Legislative Session.