Tulsa, OK Criminal Defense & Family Law Blog

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dire Need for Prison Reform in Oklahoma

 Why are dwindling oil revenues making prison reform a priority?

It is not only politics that make strange bedfellows -- economics can do the job as well. These days, the collapse of oil prices in 2014 that contributed to a massive $1.3 billion budget deficit in Oklahoma is creating a rare collaboration among state politicians. Distressed by the state's expensive, overcrowded and dysfunctional corrections system, and under pressure to solve budgetary concerns, more and more legislators are coming to agree with Joe Allbaugh, the interim director of the Department of Corrections who states that "Reform is desperately needed."

Possible Reform Measures

Allbaugh, a conservative who served in the Bush Administration, now supports efforts to steer nonviolent drug offenders into rehabilitation programs instead of prison and to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences, all in an effort to decrease prison populations that overwhelm facilities and decimate budgets.

How bad is the penal situation in Oklahoma?

Almost everyone, it seems, sees the wisdom of lowering the costs of prison maintenance while giving first-time and nonviolent offenders a shot at becoming productive citizens. As the situation stands now, not only in Oklahoma, but all over the country, when nonviolent and first-time offenders enter the prison system, they are vulnerable and at risk. Most join gangs for self-protection. When they are finally released from prison, not only are they hardened by the system that was supposed to rehabilitate them, but they are unable to find work because of their background of incarceration.


Now that budgetary deficits are uniting lawmakers to make prison reform a priority, there are many challenges ahead. Still, looking the statistics, it is impossible not to perceive a situation that requires prompt remediation. Oklahoma's "tough on crime" stance has made the state one of the very worst states in the union in terms of prison statistics. Consider the following:

  • Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country.
  • For every 12 people in Oklahoma, at least one has a felonyon his or her record
  • Even as the prison population swells, the DOC has laid off prison guards to cut costs --now the ratio of guards to inmates is 1:11 in comparison with the national average of 1:5
  • Oklahoma is the state that jails the most women
  • Oklahoma's prisons are filled to 122 percent capacity

Hopefully, Help Is on the Way

Fortunately, recent weeks have seen four bills with prison reform content passed by a Senate committee. These bills, supported by Gov. Mary Fallin, include provisions that would:

  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for first and second felony drug possession
  • Increase the felony property crime threshold from $500 to $1,000
  • Give discretion to district attorneys to categorize felonies as misdemeanors

It is widely hoped that, come November, the voters of Oklahoma will pass reform legislation that will help the state financially by redirecting money to drug rehabilitation and mental health programs. Such programs are much less expensive and more effective than those now in place that keep overcrowded, revolving-door prisons funded while destroying the lives of too many Oklahomans.

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