Oklahoma imprisons a larger percentage of its population that 47 other states. The state’s prison population grew 7.4 percent, or close to 2,000 inmates in the last 12 months. This growth rate will likely mean Oklahoma is now one of the top three fastest-growing prison systems in the country.

While much of this growth can be attributed to the shift in policy initiated by Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton to move offenders from county jails into DOC facilities, the fact remains the Oklahoma justice system relies on imprisonment far more than the rest of the country. Our already overcrowded prison system is now at 111.36 percent capacity, meaning we’re housing over 2,100 inmates beyond the “operating capacity” of our prisons, which includes temporary beds placed in dayrooms and common areas.

The situation is even more urgent when we consider that our prison facilities are now holding significantly more inmates than their “rated design capacity” or the number of inmates the facility was originally designed and built to safely house. We must acknowledge the impact of our growing prison population and recognize the urgent need for change.

We can look to other states that have successfully reduced their prison populations without sacrificing public safety. Texas has closed three state prisons and eight juvenile facilities since 2007 while also bringing about the lowest crime rates the state has seen since 1968. The reforms passed by the Texas legislature affected many areas of the criminal justice system but focused primarily on diverting suitable nonviolent offenders from state prisons to cost-effective alternatives such as drug courts. The reforms began with eight bills and were followed by another round of legislation two years later, which illustrates these legislators understood that in order to bring about meaningful change, they would need multiple levers to address various aspects of their criminal justice system that contributed to their incarceration crisis.

During the current legislation session, Oklahoma policymakers have a few opportunities to stem the prison overcrowding tide while maintaining public safety. House Bill 1518 and House Bill 1574 are pieces of legislation that aim to do just that.

HB 1518, the Justice Safety Valve Act, would not apply to violent or sex offenses but would allow judges to seek a lesser sentence for crimes requiring a mandatory minimum sentence if the court determines based on the defendant’s background that the sentence would be unjust and the defendant does not pose a risk to public safety. The bill would also allow judges, based on a risk and needs assessment, to sentence these offenders to an alternative court, a diversion program, or community sentencing. The barriers to avoiding the mandatory minimum sentence are still high, but this bill provides a valuable recourse for judges to take the relevant factors of the case into account and administer a correctional tool that will result in savings for the state and better address the crime.

HB 1574 has a similar aim in that it adds an additional sentencing option for persons convicted of two or more felony drug violations. While judges could still use the life without parole option, this bill would also give judges the option of assigning a sentence of no less than 20 years to life in prison, penalties which remain stiffer than nearly any other state.

Mandatory minimum sentences were enacted to address repeat offenders and deter future criminals; these bills do not alter this original purpose. The Justice Safety Valve Act and HB 1574 simply provide judges with an alternative option in the case that a mandatory minimum sentence does not fit the crime.

Policymakers have long been on notice that these proposals as well as additional reforms are needed. A 2007 audit of the Department of Corrections commissioned by the Legislature found that “virtually all of the projected (prison population) growth is a consequence of longer periods of imprisonment associated with ‘85 percent’ sentencing laws, accompanied by a very low parole grant rate.”

In addition to allowing for a more appropriate sentence, these bills represent an approach that Oklahoma must take to realize the budgetary and public safety gains that states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina have seen from prioritizing prisons for violent and dangerous offenders while strengthening proven alternatives for nonviolent offenders. Legislation that could save the state money by avoiding unnecessary lengthy prison sentences while still effectively addressing the crime is fiscally responsible, smart policy, and another step in the right direction.


Originally published at NewsOK.