When Harry Coates campaigned for the Oklahoma state Senate in 2002, he had one approach to crime: “Lock ’em up and throw away the key.” Now, Coates is looking for that key, reports the Associated Press. He and other tough-on-crime lawmakers across the country, faced with steep budget shortfalls, are searching anxiously for ways to let inmates out of prison faster and keep more offenders on the street. Oklahoma’s preferred answer for crime has collided head-on with a budget deficit estimated at $600 million, and prison costs that have increased by a third in the past decade.
For years, lawmakers have pushed each other to lengthen prison sentences and increase the number of criminals behind bars. Not now: This week, new Republican Speaker of the House Kris Steele is expected to unveil proposals that would divert thousands of nonviolent lawbreakers from the Oklahoma prison system and ramp up paroles. Similar crash prison reductions are going on from coast to coast. Michigan has shuttered 20 correctional facilities and slashed spending by nearly 7 percent. South Carolina expects to reduce its inmate numbers by 8 percent by putting drug dealers, burglars and hot-check writers into community programs instead of behind bars. Nationwide, the number of state inmates actually decreased last year for the first time in nearly 40 years.