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Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force: Resolve Prison Overpopulation by Adopting Cost-Effective, Evidence-Based Reforms

| March 3, 2017

This blog post was written by Right on Crime research associate Brian Bensimon.

Facing a prison bed crisis amid an ever-growing prison population, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin created a task force aiming to improve public safety by reducing recidivism, and incorporating evidence-based recommendations. The Task Force’s recommendations, if implemented, would yield an expected $2 billion savings over the next 10 years, while also reducing the overall prison population by 7 percent.

The Task Force’s report contrasts Oklahoma with other states, showing Oklahoma lagging behind the rest of the country on both crime and incarceration. As the report notes, 31 states have decreased imprisonment while reducing crime rates since 2010. Despite this success around the country, Oklahoma’s prison population has grown by 9 percent in the last 5 years, reaching 28,580 inmates.

After analyzing data on sentencing and corrections, the Task Force found that 75 percent of people admitted to prison were sentenced for non-violent crimes, and that of the 75 percent, over half of the individuals sentenced to prison have either one or no prior felony convictions. Research on the issue of recidivism suggests that incarceration is no better at reducing recidivism than non-custodial sanctions. Such alternatives include drug courts, probation, and electronic monitoring.

The report lays out several recommendations to improve public safety—principally by reducing recidivism. These recommendations include focusing supervision on high-risk offenders, using “swift, certain, and proportionate” sanctions, and frontloading resources to the first weeks and months of incarceration. In addition, the report suggests to reform supervision for probation and parole by incorporating incentives for good behavior, and by integrating treatment into surveillance.

Gov. Fallin urged legislators to consider overpopulation in Oklahoma prisons:

“Oklahoma is in a crisis as our current prison population greatly exceeds capacity, and we have the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country, with the highest rate for women. Without change, our prison population will increase by 25 percent, and will require three more prisons to be built or contracted.”

In response to this problem, citizens of Oklahoma have pushed for the state to pass meaningful criminal justice reform. Last November, two criminal justice reform ballot initiatives, State Questions 780 and 781, successfully passed.  State Questions 780 and 781 reclassified certain drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and directed expected savings to treatment for substance abuse and mental health.

The passage of State Questions 780 and 781 demonstrate the demand for significant criminal justice reform from voters. If similar evidenced-based solutions like those suggested in the Task Force’s report are implemented, Oklahomans can expect to get a handle on current prison overcrowding, all while keeping citizens safe by focusing finite space on dangerous, high-risk criminals, and by respecting the costs incurred by taxpayers.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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