By Pat Nolan and Estela Hernandez
Conservatives like us believe that the states are America’s laboratories of democracy. When it comes to criminal justice reform, this is indisputably true.
For more than a decade, states like Georgia, Texas, South Dakota, and Mississippi have embraced time-tested, common-sense reforms that keep communities safe while making better use of taxpayer dollars.
Now, Oklahoma is poised to join this group. If legislators approve the package of bills before them this year, Oklahoma can create a correctional system anchored in fiscal responsibility and the best evidence about what works to reduce crime.
Numbers tell part of the story. Oklahoma has the second highest imprisonment rate in the nation. If trends continue, Oklahoma will rise to the top of this lamentable list by the end of 2018. And when it comes to incarcerating women, Oklahoma already leads the country, a disheartening distinction it has held since 1991.
Research shows that high incarceration rates do not equate to low crime rates. In the last five years, 30 states have shown that you can reduce crime while lowering incarceration rates.
Who is filling Oklahoma’s prison beds? The answer might surprise you. Last year, three out of four Oklahomans sent to prison were sentenced for nonviolent crimes, such as drug and property offenses. Compared to neighboring states, Oklahoma sends many more of these offenders to prison – and keeps them there longer.
While Oklahoma’s reliance on prison is already straining state coffers, the future looks worse. If lawmakers fail to change course, the prison population will grow by 25 percent over the next decade, costing taxpayers nearly $2 billion for three new prisons.
Given this grim landscape, it’s gut-check time for Oklahoma’s legislators. Will they continue to dump dollars into a broken system, clinging to a failed status quo and facing a potential federal takeover? Or will they steer Oklahoma toward a more productive path?
We strongly urge legislators to make the latter choice. The Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force developed evidence-based proposals that, if adopted through legislation, will not only prevent explosive prison population growth but will actually reduce current inmate levels. This will free up space for recidivism-reduction programs and treatment and make prisons safer for the officers who risk their lives staffing these prisons.
For decades, political leaders have passed laws that treat prison as the default response to most crimes, and it’s easy to hold tight to that orthodoxy, however wasteful and ineffective it may be. Prison will always be an essential public safety tool and an appropriate sanction for violent and serious offenders, but prison is not the best response for all offenders. Leadership means studying data, evidence, and experiences of other states and standing up for a fresh approach when the facts are clear.
Oklahomans should encourage their legislators to summon the courage to commit to a new criminal justice approach, one proven to provide taxpayers a better return on their public safety investment. And in the meantime, we can support the ministries and other groups that help steer people away from crime and toward productive lives.
As usual, the words of Will Rogers provide a helpful reminder: “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.”
Pat Nolan is the Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.
Estela Hernandez is the Vice President of Engagement at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.