Andrew Speno, Right on Crime’s state director for Oklahoma, talked to KOCO channel 5 News about the state’s bulging prison population and the fiscal crisis it presents.

The corrections board recently authorized $116.5 million in bonds as relief to crumbling facilities. This was an unfortunate cost that could have been avoided if ample criminal justice reforms were passed last session.

In April, lawmakers passed seven bills that were developed from the governor’s task force recommendations. The reforms were a major step forward, but unfortunately not enough to combat all factors contributing to the rising prison population. State Questions 780 and 781 made a little more headway. State Question 780 reduced simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, diverting low-level nonviolent drug offenders to drug courts instead of prison. State Question 781 redirects money saved and puts it back into treatment programs at a much lower cost. “The cost of a year in drug court is $5,000,” Speno explained. “DOC estimates a year of incarceration is $19,000, at minimum.” The price goes up for women. Because many women who are incarcerated have children who wind up in foster care while they’re incarcerated, the monetary cost to taxpayers can be as high as $80,000 per woman. Speno underlines that the cost is unsustainable.

“[I]f we can get an equal rate of return, or better, at the fraction of the cost when it comes public safety,” Speno said. “We should because that’s the conservative thing to do, and Oklahoma is a conservative state.”

Oklahoma is not alone in its predicament. Texas was once similarly situated and chose to overhaul its justice system, increasing alternatives to incarceration, such as treatment programs, and by strengthening probation and parole. Today, savings to Texas taxpayers stands at more than $2 billion, and nine correctional facilities have closed. Most importantly, the FBI’s 2017 statistics show overall crime in Texas is at its lowest level since 1966.

As Oklahoma continues to increase spending on its prison system, Speno cautioned, “We’re not getting the outcomes to justify the cost.”

Even with the reforms passed, Oklahoma’s prison population is still projected to grow by 12.5 percent over the next ten years. Speno shared that in addition to ramping up diversion to treatment courts, lawmakers should second guess their reliance on fines and fees. This is yet another contributor to prison populations as Oklahomans who are unable to pay fines and fees often get sent to prison. Prison should be reserved for those who threaten public safety, not the poorest among us.