COMMENTARY: A “bite-sized” start to reverse Oklahoma’s exploding prison spending problems

OKLAHOMA CITY – Members of the Oklahoma Legislature have held a series of interim hearings on criminal justice and corrections. Among other things, they’ve grappled with definitions of violent crime in the state. 

State Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, says the definitions “are in some many different statutes and so convoluted.”

First is all those offenses that are “85 percent crimes” – for which a convicted person must serve at last that much of the sentence before becoming eligible for release. Note: even the best-behaved “85 percent-ers” rarely get out before reaching 93 or 94 percent of the original sentence. And, Oklahoma sentences tend to run longer than is the case in other states for similar offenses.

Overcrowding flows from sentences served for offenses for which only the governor can grant pardon, crimes that require a presentencing investigation, and those nonviolent offenses that require victim notification before a convict’s release.

Some state officials are again echoing the views of the folks at Right on Crime, the Texas Public Policy Foundation project that has guided a revolution in conservative thinking, boosting alternatives to incarceration for the non-violent

One key player, Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is not exactly a member of the prison reform choir, yet as a legislator he manifested reformist tendencies. He says that public safety – not necessarily long sentences – should be the goal of policymakers. 

Some essentials:

*Today, one in 33 American are under criminal justice system control.

* When Ronald Reagan was president, the number was one in 77. Prison costs have increased from $11 billion when the Gipper led America, to $50 billion today. 

* Corrections is the second fastest growing area of state spending (behind only Medicaid), nationwide. 

* Texas and South Carolina have redirected spending toward prison alternatives – including restitution, better post-incarceration supervision, and data-proven approaches to fight addiction. 

* Oklahoma prisons are at 98 to 99 percent of capacity, and there are about 27,000 people incarcerated in our state, today.

* Oklahoma abides in the top five for incarceration, per capita, and is number one for female imprisonment. 

Some legislators, including state Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, want to use more private prisons to ease overcrowding in government-managed facilities, a reasonable-sounding idea. 

A problem is that bringing in more private beds will stave off the day our state follows the pattern set by Gov. Rick Perry in Texas, where incarceration rates have flattened. The Lone Star State even cancelled a new facility in 2012, because they didn’t need it.

Rather than repeat a narrative of reforms enacted but never implemented, I encourage policymakers to consider the plight of human beings now serving life sentences unnecessarily.

And, rather than restate the entire exhaustive body of academic research documenting the ineffectiveness of the Sooner State’s “lock-’em-up” approach over the last several decades, consider the following bite-sized nuggets of information. 

* A new American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) analysis – “A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses” – found 3,278 people in U.S. prisons who are serving life terms, without parole, for non-violent offenses. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) were in federal facilities.

In nine state systems, the numbers were 429 in Louisiana, 270 in Florida, 244 in Alabama, 93 in Mississippi, 88 in South Carolina, 49 in Oklahoma, 20 in Georgia, 10 in Illinois, and one in Missouri. 

* Seventy-nine percent committed drug-related non-violent crimes, including possession and distribution. Another 20 percent committed nonviolent property crimes such as theft. 

* Ethnic breakdown for those incarcerated for life after nonviolent offenses: 65 percent Black, 18 percent white, 16 percent Latino, the balance others.

One Oklahoman, Teresa Griffin, is featured in the national report. Now 47, she says she wanted to leave the drug-running lifestyle her boyfriend led, but he threatened her life if she did. She was busted with $38,500, and a half-pound of cocaine. Originally sentenced to death, she has served 22 years in prison.

“This report should serve as a wake up call. Our broken criminal justice system is needlessly destroying lives with wildly disproportionate sentences, all the while wasting taxpayer dollars and failing to make Oklahomans any safer as a result,” said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, and a former state legislator.

The national ACLU report was crafted from interviews, correspondence, surveys of prisoners, court records and data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections. Some of the data was gleaned from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and open records responses. 

The sorts of reforms which would lead Oklahoma out of this moral and monetary morass  have already been enacted, in the justice reinvestment initiative of 2011 and 2012.

State leaders should take a fresh look at the evidence, and make a fresh start on implementation, with the best interests of taxpayers in mind, as well as those wrong-doers whose lives can still be salvaged. 

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