Oklahoma CURE

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Editorial: Getting serious about prison reform

Feb 18, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

Oklahoma’s tough-on-crime stance has failed. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Oklahoma locks up more people per capita than any state except Mississippi or Louisiana. Through 2013, Oklahoma had 873 adult inmates per 100,000 residents, an increase of 1.7 percent from 2012. For all its blustering, even Texas looks wimpy by comparison, with an adult incarceration rate 6.2 percent lower than Oklahoma’s. Let’s put that in perspective: Cuba has the highest incarceration rate outside the U.S., at 510 per 100,000. That’s more than 41 percent lower than Oklahoma’s, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. China’s incarceration rate is only 121; Liberia’s is only 46. Even at the peak of the Soviet gulags in 1950, the incarceration rate of 823 per 100,000 was lower than Oklahoma’s is now.

Oklahoma’s tough-on-crime stance has failed.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Oklahoma locks up more people per capita than any state except Mississippi or Louisiana. Through 2013, Oklahoma had 873 adult inmates per 100,000 residents, an increase of 1.7 percent from 2012.

For all its blustering, even Texas looks wimpy by comparison, with an adult incarceration rate 6.2 percent lower than Oklahoma’s.

Let’s put that in perspective: Cuba has the highest incarceration rate outside the U.S., at 510 per 100,000. That’s more than 41 percent lower than Oklahoma’s, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. China’s incarceration rate is only 121; Liberia’s is only 46. Even at the peak of the Soviet gulags in 1950, the incarceration rate of 823 per 100,000 was lower than Oklahoma’s is now.

Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said last week that Oklahoma’s prisons are operating at an average of 118 percent of capacity. In turn, the state has been forced to contract with expensive private prisons to accommodate the growing prison population. According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ annual report, the state spent nearly $79.3 million on private prisons.

The DOC explained it this way in the report: “The increased use of contract prison beds to accommodate net offender growth has resulted in expenditure growth beyond the agency’s appropriated resources. To meet this cost growth, numerous facility infrastructure, technology, vehicle replacements, programmatic and staffing needs have been chronically deferred, reduced in scope, or reallocated.”

Poor conditions lead to more problems. The Associated Press reported Monday that there were 39 homicides at Oklahoma prisons between 2001 and 2012, a rate of 14 per 100,000 inmates, the most in the country. The national average is 4 per 100,000. With prisons overcrowded and understaffed, the pressure is certain to build. Nearly every classroom and activity area has been converted to housing to deal with the ever-growing prison population.

No one wants violent criminals walking the streets. But according to the DOC, only 48.2 percent of prisoners are there for violent offenses. Drug convictions account for 27.1 percent and the other 24.7 percent are there for other nonviolent crimes, including the 2.5 percent who are imprisoned for alcohol-related crimes.

Patton met Monday with Gov. Mary Fallin, legislators, representatives from law enforcement, the state’s mental health agency and others to discuss possibly slowing the growth of inmate numbers.

It’s time for lawmakers to put away the campaign clichés and get serious about prison reform. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key makes a nice sound bite, but it’s lousy public policy.

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