By Christopher Zoukis
On April 26, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a package of seven new criminal reform measures into law; they were intended to, without lessening public safety, reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons (now running at 112% of capacity, not counting about 1,150 prison inmates diverted to county jails).
Without the just-signed changes, Oklahoma, which already incarcerates 715 of every 100,000 residents – was on the verge of overtaking Louisiana, with 776 inmates out of every 100,000 residents, as the state with the highest incarceration rate – and expected to see its prison population increase by 25% in under a decade, forcing the state to build or contract for three new prisons just to keep pace.
The package of reform proposals came from a Justice Reform Task Force Gov. Fallin created in August 2016, to undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice system, then using hard data come up with recommendations designed to get control of state corrections spending.
The Task Force made over two dozen recommendations in February 2017, which raised hopes for quick action. But faced with resistance from many local prosecutors, the legislature stalled, clearing only a handful of minor measures.
This year, facing teacher demands for pay increases and other budget issues, Gov. Fallin and other backers of criminal justice reform negotiated with opponents, coming up with somewhat scaled-back versions of their original bills. Seven bills handily cleared the legislature (none drew over three negative votes in the 48-member Oklahoma Senate).
The measures signed into law included numerous changes to sentencing laws, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reducing sentence enhancement provisions for some crimes and for some repeat non-violent offenses. Other new provisions adjusted penalties for drug offenses to distinguish between ordinary possession and more serious offenses, such as production or distribution. And penalties were lowered for some less serious property offenses, primarily those, like forgery, more likely to be committed with a pen rather than a crowbar.
Other Task Force recommendations signed into law made procedural changes to make the criminal justice system easier to navigate, or allow more flexibility in appropriate cases, such as a new parole process for inmates age 60 and up being released after serving time for non-violent offenses, as long as they had been found not to present a public safety risk, and a new administrative parole process for non-violent offenders, allowing the Pardon and Parole Board to concentrate its attention on those who’d committed more serious crimes.
That doesn’t by any stretch mean Oklahoma might not have taken additional steps; the enactments will prevent part, but not all, of the 25% increase in inmate population the state expected to face by 2026. So instead of getting 7,200 more inmates, the increase will be held to an estimated 2,300, which leaves the state pondering whether to float a new round of bonds to pay for one or two new prisons, rather than the three they thought they might have to acquire.
If all Task Force recommendations could have been realized, the inmate population might have fallen by about 2,000. Still, the new laws are a useful start, and may demonstrate how sensible changes can help taxpayers and prisons alike.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.