Oklahoma is at close-to-double the amount of incarcerated people than the national average. graphic by Emma Palmer

Behind bars: Oklahomans face longer prison sentences

Oklahoma has a higher prison population than any other state, partially because of longer prison sentences.

Contrary to how it might seem on the evening news, both violent and property crime rates in America have fallen 30 percent since 2000. However, the state of Oklahoma seems to have missed the memo: our prison population is at 113 percent capacity, making Oklahoma the “world’s prison capital,” as some criminal justice reformers call it.

Oklahoma puts more of its own citizens behind bars than any other state or country worldwide. There are 708 incarcerated people per 100,000 in Oklahoma, and the national average is 397, meaning Oklahoma puts 78 percent more people behind bars than other states.

Not only does Oklahoma imprison more people than any other state in the union, it also keeps them there for longer. According to 2018 data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, in comparison to 2016 national averages, Oklahoma sentences people to longer stays in prison than the national average: 22 months rather than 13 months for property crimes, 25 versus 14 for drugs and 35 versus 29 for violent crimes.

Part of the reason is the so-called “85 percent crimes,” which stipulate that a prisoner must serve at least 85 percent of their original sentence regardless of good behavior or participation in rehabilitation programs.

One reason activists are seeking to reform these sentencing laws is to save taxpayer money. The Oklahoma Board of Corrections approved the $1.56 billion Department of Corrections 2020 budget, which includes $916 million in funding for a new medium-security facility and facility repairs. These costs are largely placed on the shoulders of state taxpayers.

Some progress has been made on this issue; however, reform advocates say not enough is being done as only one bill out of more than a dozen proposed bills has been passed through the state legislature. One notable reform group, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, estimated that the combination of these bills would have cut Oklahoma’s state prison population by 17 percent within 10 years.

That bill, HB 1269, expanded actions taken by a 2016 ballot measure that declared minor theft and simple drug possession misdemeanors. That state ballot measure got rid of prison sentences for people convicted of drug possession for personal use, but it had no retroactive effect, meaning prisoners in jail for that same crime weren’t released.

HB 1269 changed that, clearing the way for the state’s Pardon and Parole Board to provide early release for nearly 1,000 inmates later this year and shorten sentences for another 2,000 inmates. It also provides a pathway for an estimated 60,000 people who have drug felonies to get their record expunged, giving them a better chance at finding jobs or receiving workplace promotions.
In addition, it would keep them from being re-incarcerated for violating the terms of their release, as they would no longer have a record. The bill takes effect in November.

The other proposed bills would have reduced the length of applicable sentences for people with prior nonviolent convictions, shortened drug sentences and mandated affordable bail terms. Other bills would have provided a fast-track to parole for those with less than six months on their sentence and clarified appropriate situations for a defendant to be charged with a felony drug crime.

Oklahoma replaced Louisiana in 2018 as the state with the highest inmate population per capita. Lawmakers in Louisiana said that they reduced their prison population by 7.6 percent in less than a year by passing a sweeping agenda of reforms. This shows that Olahoma can also reduce the size of its prison population if it were to make this issue more of a priority.

Post Author: Gabe Powell