How Oklahoma Popped Its Prison Bubble, In Charts
In 2016, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate in the United States. If it were a country, it would have led the world. That year there were 1,079 people incarcerated in Oklahoma facilities, including jails and state and federal prisons, per every 100,000 people in the state, according to a 2018 analysis?by the Prison Policy Initiative.?By comparison, the United States—which has the highest incarceration rate in the world—imprisoned 698 people per 100,000 that same year. Oklahoma’s per-capita rate was about twice that of Connecticut (468 per 100,000) and Oregon (582 per 100,000), both of which have populations similar in size.
That same year, lawmakers and activists in Oklahoma began working to reduce the number of people behind bars. One former state representative, Kris Steele, mobilized a coalition of business and religious allies, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, to advance legislation to reduce the prison population in the state. The nonprofit crafted a successful ballot initiative in 2016, State Question 780, that downgraded some felonies to misdemeanors and, when applied retroactively, led to the release of hundreds of inmates. It was one of several reforms passed in recent years that reduced sentences, allowed for more parole to be ?granted?and decreased the prison population in the state.
As?of February 2020, a separate per-capita calculation prepared by StateImpact Oklahoma?showed Oklahoma now falls behind Louisiana and Mississippi for per-capita incarceration.
In 2016, the latest year available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Oklahoma’s prison population fell slightly. But that number had been trending upward since the 1980s.
In that decade, the number of prisoners in Oklahoma, as well as the rest of the United States, skyrocketed as legislators cracked down on crime. A truth in sentencing law passed in Oklahoma in 1999, for instance, required that people convicted of violent crimes serve 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. The law increased the length of time people have to serve,?according to?Ryan Gentzler, director of Open Justice Oklahoma at the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Gentzler also said the incarcerated population in Oklahoma increased between 2008 and 2017 partly because of an?“evaporation” in the number of paroles granted, as the parole board “got?more and more conservative in their decision-making,” and the total number of parole applications the board reviewed also dropped. Over that time, paroles granted plummeted 77 percent, according to an analysis by the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
So what reversed this growth in incarceration?
In 2018, Oklahoma instituted a new parole policy that streamlined the process and made inmates who met certain criteria—like serving specified portions of their sentences—eligible for parole without board hearings. A fiscal impact report?on the new process, prepared by the legislature in 2017, projected it could reduce the number of incarcerated people by 3,750.
State Question 780 also reduced the prison population by reducing the number of people sent to prison in the first place.
Although Oklahoma has seen its prison population drop, state facilities remain crowded.
Data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections?shows that as of April 13, the Oklahoma corrections system is at 99 percent of its original rated capacity, or the number of inmates the prison was originally built to hold. This includes both public and private facilities. Open Justice Oklahoma?reports Oklahoma state prisons, as of the same date, are at 109 percent of their rated capacity. Contracted facilities—private prisons, county jails and transitional centers—are at 88 percent of their rated capacity.
Many Oklahoma prisons exceed their original rated capacity by much more than the state average. Take, for example, the Howard McLeod Correctional Center. The facility was first rated to hold 313 inmates. As of April 13, it now holds 655 inmates—more than twice as many as it was built for, and even higher than its current total capacity of 649 inmates. To accommodate inmates over capacity, Oklahoma supplements its prison system with?temporary beds.
Data from?the?Oklahoma Department of Corrections?shows the state has brought the number of inmates down. Still, according to a Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and FWD.us 2018 report, Oklahoma’s prison population will grow by 14 percent by 2028 if no new reforms are introduced and passed. Suggested new reforms in the report include not sending individuals to prison for violating parole if they don’t commit any new crimes, better defining “possession with intent to distribute” laws and changing the terms of habitual offender laws to exclude nonviolent offenders.
“I think?we are generally headed in the right direction, but the next steps are harder to take for policymakers in general,” Gentzler said. “We’ve dealt with … the lowest tier of inmates, those that were in on the really low-level property crimes and drug crimes, and to continue to make progress, we need to start looking at those more serious crimes that lawmakers are, you know, a lot more hesitant to make changes on.”
Methodology for calculating per-capita incarceration rates varies by institution. The Prison Policy Initiative’s 2018 report, States of Incarceration, used 2016 data to calculate its U.S. and state incarceration rates. State per-capita rates reflect a range of incarcerated populations, including?state prisons, local jails, federal prisons, Indian country jails, youth confinement and involuntary commitments. It used the Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s May 2018 World Prison Brief to calculate international incarceration rates, and only assessed countries that had a population larger than 500,000. StateImpact Oklahoma used?reports on prison populations from January and February 2020 to conclude that Oklahoma no longer leads the U.S. in per-capita incarceration. Inmate count and rated capacities are based on Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ weekly count data. Totals for inmates in each facility are from the “Inside Total” column of the document, while rated capacity is determined based on the “Inside Total” divided by the “Rated Total” columns. Inmate counts do not include those who are out for court, to receive medical treatment, or for other reasons.