How Oklahoma is Lagging in Prison Reforms

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In 2017, Oklahoma became the nation’s most incarcerated state, taking over a spot previously held by Louisiana, which significantly reduced its prison population. Of the ten most incarcerated states five years ago, all but three have seen decreases. The only states to experience an increase in that period were Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, The Oklahoman reports. Reform advocates had high hopes at the beginning of the recent Oklahoma legislative session, but were largely disappointed that many measures failed to advance, including bail reform and legislation to create a uniform definition of possession with intent to distribute. “The people in Oklahoma are not more criminogenic than the people in other states, and yet we have the highest incarceration rates,” said Kris Steele of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.

Non-violent offenders in Oklahoma serve sentences twice as long as the national average. Since 1991, the state has had the highest female incarceration rate per capita, a rate that is two-and-a-half times the national average. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections says 68 percent of all women in prison have experienced some form of domestic abuse. Ryan Gentzler of the Oklahoma Policy Institute said issues of trauma, mental illness and addiction are not sufficiently treated in Oklahoma, leading in part to overcrowded prisons. In some cases, mass incarceration and technical violations can reap financial awards off the backs of offenders. Oklahoma prosecutors get around $15 million of their budgets from supervision fees. “There is a clear incentive to put people on supervision,” he says. Until recently, most prosecutors were funded through fees and fines. This year, the legislature increased funding to district attorneys in hope of reducing fees and fines. Gentzler says other states’ increases in supervision resources on the front end and development of graduated sanctions would be a way to reducing prison populations.

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