OKLAHOMA CITY – Since the days of frontier justice, lawmakers in conservative Oklahoma have viewed harsh prison sentences as the politically expedient solution to crime, including nonviolent offenses.
That approach has imposed a high price, leaving the state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, overcrowded prisons and skyrocketing costs. Now, after years of steady debate, there’s growing agreement – even among conservatives – that changes are needed.
But the fragile consensus has crashed headlong into a towering obstacle: the entrenched ideology of the state’s top prosecutors, many of whom have made political careers out of padding their conviction rates.
The powerful elected district attorneys are lagging “behind the will of the people,” said state Rep. Cory Williams, a five-term Democrat who is running to be one of the state’s 27 district attorneys. “I think the public thinks we can do things differently, and I think our current DAs do not.”
The current Republican governor, Mary Fallin, backs the push to steer more nonviolent offenders into alternatives to prison. And in 2016, a ballot measure to reduce penalties for drug possession and property crimes passed with nearly 60 percent support, even though district attorneys and law enforcement were fiercely opposed.
Those changes and others the Legislature approved this year are expected to slow the prison population’s growth. But it is still on pace to expand by 25 percent by 2026.
Many of the conservative lawmakers who opposed changes to the criminal justice system in the past have left office. And both major candidates running to replace the term-limited Fallin have voiced strong support for lowering Oklahoma’s incarceration rate.
“Right now, we’re incarcerating people we’re mad at. We’re not really afraid of them,” said Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt, the Republican candidate for governor. “I’ll lead on this effort to turn that around.”
Kris Steele, a Baptist minister and former Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House, is leading a coalition of political, business and community leaders dedicated to reducing the state’s prison population. The group spearheaded the 2016 ballot question, and he said another initiative is possible.
Still, the district attorneys wield tremendous power and influence over state lawmakers and policymakers. Although district attorneys stand for election every four years, they often don’t draw an opponent. Of the 27 in office, only eight are being challenged in this year’s election.
After a package of bills aimed at reducing the prison population gained bipartisan support last year, a prosecutor-turned-legislator managed to bottle them up in a committee, despite the objections of the governor. When similar bills were introduced again this year, district attorneys worked to water them down.
Steele agrees that DAs are thwarting changes, but he expressed optimism about future proposals that could include reducing or eliminating mandatory sentences, particularly for drug and property crimes, offering more lenient bail and pre-trial release options and improving funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment, among other things.
Brian Hermanson, a prosecutor in northern Oklahoma who heads the state DA’s association, said prosecutors want to be part of a solution but fears that some of the suggested changes could threaten public safety.
“Does it help improve public safety, or are you just letting people out of prison because there are too many bodies in there?” Hermanson asked.
He said people he sends to prison are either violent offenders or have extensive criminal records.
But more than half of those sentenced to prison in Oklahoma for nonviolent offenses have one or zero prior felony convictions, according to a state task force report from last year. The study also found that 75 percent of Oklahoma prisoners were sentenced for nonviolent crimes.
The state’s aging prisons are at 113 percent of capacity, and many of their classrooms and recreational areas were long ago converted into bed space. The head of the prison system has requested a state appropriation of more than 20 percent of the overall budget, including more than $800 million to build two new prisons.
The cost to families is harder to calculate. Angela Nelson had three children when she did her first 18-month stint in an Oklahoma prison at age 24 for writing a bogus check. The kids ended up scattered among relatives, and her daughter ended up in foster care.
With no driver’s license or job prospects and still facing steep fines and fees after she got out of prison, Nelson got trapped in a cycle of poverty, crime and addiction that eventually landed her back in prison, she said.
“It felt like one day I was a kid, the next day I was a pregnant teenager, and things just went from bad to worse,” said Nelson, who finished her most recent stint in March and now works two jobs.
Now 44, Nelson said the situation behind bars is noticeably worse.
“The first time I went to prison, they had classes and programs and things like that,” Nelson said. “This time I went in, I was just warehoused.”
Oklahoma’s incarceration rate of 990 inmates per 100,000 residents recently surpassed Mississippi’s and Louisiana’s to become highest in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Those and other red states, like Georgia, Kentucky and Texas, all have implemented changes that have slowed and reversed prison growth.
Generally, those changes included alternatives to sentencing, such as treatment or rehabilitation programs, especially for nonviolent offenders.
Faced with ballooning incarceration costs that were expected to rise by an additional $264 million over the next five years, lawmakers in Georgia began making changes to the state’s prison system in 2011, including improving the state’s re-entry and felony probation programs and diverting nonviolent offenders to alternative programs. As Georgia’s prison population dropped over the next several years, its felony crime rate also fell by 10 percent, according to federal statistics.
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