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Sentencing Overkill in Oklahoma

26-Jan-2015

It is no secret that Oklahoma has some of the toughest drug laws in the country, and that its incarceration rate is higher than most other states in the nation. Depending on your perspective, you may think a high incarceration rate is an indicator of a "tough on crime" approach that protects the public safety, or you may realize that a high incarceration rate often simply perpetuates a cycle of drug use and violence, rather than rehabilitating low-level offenders.

The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group to "reduce the reliance on incarceration," issued a report showing some startling statistics about incarceration in Oklahoma. This report looked at incarceration rates, length of sentencing, and racial disparity in sentencing.

In "Oklahoma Sentencing and Punishment: Two Decades of Rising Imprisonment," researchers uncovered the following key facts about incarceration in Oklahoma:

  • Oklahoma's incarceration rate of 66 per 100,000 people is the third highest incarceration rate in the nation. It is nearly 50 percent greater than the national average. Only Louisiana and Mississippi have higher incarceration rates.
  • In the 20 years from 1989 to 2009, the inmate population in Oklahoma more than doubled, up 127 percent from 11,608 to 26,397 in just two decades.
  • Of the inmate population in Oklahoma, 50 percent are incarcerated for nonviolent property crimes or drug offenses. In fact, for more than a quarter of the inmates (27 percent) the primary offense that put them behind bars was a drug crime. The national average is only 20 percent, meaning Oklahoma sentences drug offenders at a significantly higher rate and for longer terms than the rest of the nation.
  • The cost of incarcerating nonviolent offenders in Oklahoma in 2010 was $218 million.

Between 2007 and 2011, half of those imprisoned for the first time for drug offenses related to crack cocaine were convicted of drug possession only. The average sentence for a first offense of crack possession during this time? 3.3 years. However, putting a low-level offender behind bars for years does not typically serve to rehabilitate him or her. Instead, according to the Sentencing Project, long incarceration has the reverse effect:

"However, research finds that lower-risk offenders are more likely to be negatively affected by incarceration. Typically, prisoners sentenced to longer sentences are more likely to become institutionalized, lose pro-social contacts in the community, and become removed from legitimate opportunities, all of which promote recidivism. Among low-risk offenders, those who spent less time in prison were 4% less likely to recidivate than low-risk offenders who served longer sentences. Sentencing practices that allow offenders to maintain their ties to family, employers, and community promote successful reentry into society and strengthen public safety."

If there is one silver lining in the overcrowding of Oklahoma prisons, it is that legislators are being forced to look at reforming sentencing practices and mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes--nonviolent drug crimes in particular. Prison alternatives such as drug court and community sentencing may be effective in easing the overcrowding in Oklahoma prisons, reducing the expenditure for incarcerating nonviolent offenders, and reducing the recidivism rate for drug offenses and nonviolent property crimes.



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