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August 12, 2007

Toughness bills coming due in Oklahoma

This local AP story discussing the state of sentencing and corrections in Oklahoma describes a situation that exists in far too many states.  Here are extended excerpts from a long and strong article:

Tough-on-crime public safety policies are sending inmates to Oklahoma prisons faster than others are being released, leaving prisons filled to capacity and burdening the state with rising correctional expenses and inmate health care costs.

In Oklahoma's 100th year of statehood, its incarceration rate ranks fourth in the U.S. behind Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A study by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center found that almost 1 percent of the state's entire adult population age 18 and over was in prison at the end of August 2006. 

Also, Oklahoma ranks first in the number of women it puts behind bars in a nation that is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.1 million people in prisons or jails across the country. Oklahoma incarcerated 120 women per 100,000 residents in 2005 compared to the U.S. average of 58....

At midyear 1995, slightly more than 1 million inmates were housed in state prisons nationally and 17,605 were housed in Oklahoma state prisons, according to BJS figures. Eleven years later, more than 1.36 million inmates were housed in state prisons and 23,935 were in Oklahoma prisons. Last month, there were 25,160 state inmates in public and private prisons and more than 98 percent of the state's prison cells were occupied, the Department of Corrections said. Criminal justice officials have warned that an additional 900 inmates are expected to enter the state's penal system in 2008.

"The attitude in the Legislature is get tough on crime,'' said former Republican state Sen. Ged Wright of Broken Arrow, a member of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission that reviews criminal justice policy and makes recommendations to the Legislature.  Wright said state sentencing policies are forcing more inmates to serve longer sentences.... "Nobody wants to be perceived as being soft on crime. That goes into more felonies and longer sentences,'' Wright said.  Senate President co-Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said population growth, and not harsh criminal justice policies, is responsible for the state's rising inmate population. Oklahoma ranks 28th nationally in population. "The first priority of government is to keep people safe,'' Coffee said.

Rising prison populations are putting new pressure on already pinched state budgets. States spent nearly $35.6 billion on corrections in 2006 and budgeted $37.6 billion for 2007, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  "The budget pressures and overcrowding issues are the single biggest factor,'' King said.  The Oklahoma Legislature appropriated more than $477 million for state prisons this year, an increase of 4.7 percent from the previous year.  Last year, the Legislature appropriated $435 million for state prisons, $45 million more than in 2005. The state prison budget grew by 147 percent from 1990 to 2001, more than any other state agency, according to a report by the Tulsa-based Community Action Project....

This year, prison officials sought funding for a 1,500-bed expansion at the maximum-security Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, opened in 1908, and a new 2,400-bed medium-security prison, but neither plan was considered.  Both would have been paid for with a 25-year, $380 million bond issue.  "I don't think building a bunch of new prisons and the capital costs associated with that makes sense,'' Coffee said.  State lawmakers have hired a Florida-based company, MGT of America, to conduct a performance audit of the prison system to help them balance public safety concerns with the growing costs of state prisons.

August 12, 2007 at 07:49 AM | Permalink


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Of course, locking up career criminals creates a good deal of cost savings as well. When an average burglar gets locked up for a long stretch, how many burglaries are prevented?

Posted by: federalist | Aug 12, 2007 9:51:43 PM

Unfortunately, the term "career criminals" is far broader in scope than what common-sense would consider appropriate, but includes kids whose impulsive behaviors (which would formerly have resulted in house arrest by their parents) are now felonies, non-violent possessors of drugs, and similar "criminals." I had a client whose prior "auto theft" was actually joy-riding in a golf cart and whose "residential burglary" was entering his own mother's house and taking a coin collection (from the stepfather who hated him) -- at the age of 17. At age 21, after he was released from three years in the educational environment of the Texas pen and with no ability to get a job, he foolishly transported some marijuana and was labeled a "career offender", netting him almost 17 years in federal prison. Counseling when he was a teenager probably would have been more productive than three years in prison, but society no longer provides that option for the poor. He is not atypical, either. I am happy to report that, now older and more settled, he is pursuing a degree, through a program that provides college classes to inmates. But he didn't need 17 years of incarceration to learn the lesson.

Posted by: defense attorney | Aug 13, 2007 11:12:49 AM

Unfortunately, the term "career criminals" is far broader in scope than what common-sense would consider appropriate, but includes kids whose impulsive behaviors (which would formerly have resulted in house arrest by their parents) are now felonies, non-violent possessors of drugs, and similar "criminals."

This is a fair point. I think that the problem with these statutes isn't the principle behind them so much as their broad reach and the fact that judges aren't allowed to smooth out the rough edges.

Posted by: | Aug 13, 2007 11:41:51 AM

He probably didn't need 17 years of incarceration. But there are plenty of folks who do. And because judges seemed to have issues separating the two, we now have some pretty harsh outcomes.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 13, 2007 1:27:33 PM

"judges seemed to have issues separating the two" -- as if the inanimate statute does any better.

"Judging" has the name it does for a reason. It is not always done perfectly. It is never done to everyone's liking. But not to tolerate it is one of the worst policy choices any legislature can make.

Posted by: | Aug 13, 2007 8:36:25 PM

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but sentencing judges blew it--they handed out far too lenient sentences for brutal crimes and for repeat offenders. Remember the bad old days? Finally, legislatures said enough and took away sentencing discretion.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 13, 2007 11:27:46 PM

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