OK Seeks Two New Prisons as Reform Efforts Lag

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As Oklahoma remains the state with the nation’s second-highest incarceration rate, advocates for criminal justice reform hope this year’s legislative session will prove more fruitful than the last, The Oklahoman reports. Only Louisiana has a higher ratio of its residents behind bars, at 760 per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Oklahoma sits at 673 per 100,000. Kris Steele of The Education and Employment Ministry said the report underscores the need for reforms. Steele led a campaign in 2016 to reduce Oklahoma’s drug possession penalties and fund community rehabilitation programs. “Oklahoma families deserve more,” Steele said. “Limited taxpayer dollars are better spent providing mental health and substance abuse treatment to address the root causes of crime instead of building new prisons.”

The state continues to incarcerate women at a rate higher than any other state. “Under current policies and law the female incarceration rate in Oklahoma is projected to increase 60 percent over the next 10 years,” Steele said. “This is especially troubling given Oklahoma currently locks up women at a rate of two and a half times the national average.” Much criminal justice reform languished in a House committee last year because of opposition by that committee’s chairman, former state Rep. Scott Biggs. The bills he blocked would have reduced extra prison time for some prior offenses, given judges more leeway to put people into treatment and supervision programs instead of prison, and made it easier for some convicts to expunge their record so they can get a job after serving time. As of Friday, Oklahoma’s prisons were at 112 percent of capacity.  Despite statewide votes to reduce drug penalties, the prison population is expected to increase by 25 percent in the next nine years. The corrections department will ask lawmakers Tuesday for $813 million to build two new prisons.

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