The Roundup

Oklahoma on Lockdown: The Rising Cost of Incarceration

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Posted 06.13.12

Over the past 40 years, “justice” in the United States has been defined as a prison sentence, and the pervasive thinking has been that the more sentences handed out—and the longer their terms—the safer the public. More modern thinking, however, has become critical of the prison system, its high cost, and its failure to rehabilitate criminals.

The Pew Center on the States recently released a study, “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” that analyzed state prison data to discover that “offenders released in 2009 served an average of almost three years in custody, nine months or 36 percent longer than offenders released in 1990.”

“The cost of that extra nine months totals an average of $23,300 per offender,” Pew reported. “For offenders released from their original commitment in 2009 alone, the additional time behind bars cost states over $10 billion, with more than half of this cost attributable to non-violent offenders.”

In Oklahoma, which incarcerates more people per capita than any other state, the length of prison terms has risen 83 percent in the past 19 years.

In 1990, the average Oklahoma offender spent 1.7 years in prison. In 2009, that number rose by 83 percent to 3.1 years, well above the national average of 2.9 years. The length of sentences for property crimes increased by 93 percent—from 1.5 years to 2.9 years (the national average is 2.3 years)—and 122 percent for drug crimes. Those offenses, which used to garner a 1.2-year sentence, are now earning a term of 2.6 years. The national average is 2.2 years.

Violent offenders actually spend less time in prison in Oklahoma than they do in other states—in 2009, the average length of stay was 4.5 years (up 34 percent from 1990), while the national average was five years.

Pew estimates the state spent $203.9 million keeping offenders released in 2009 in prison longer.

House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, authored a bill, which will go into effect Nov. 1, aimed at lowering both crime and incarceration rates through pre-sentencing evaluations of offenders’ mental health and drug addictions, non-prison facilities for nonviolent offenders and parole violators, and the implementation of new crime-mapping and prevention technologies.

“The bill is expected to save $170 million in the next decade and provide $40 million to law enforcement agencies over a 10-year period to help pay for technology, overtime and targeting strategies including hot-spot policing that increases police presence in high-crime areas, which can help prevent and reduce crime, according to the bill,” Correctional News reported.

The ACLU has criticized the bill, though, saying it could increase the state’s prison population because “it allows prosecutors to veto judicial decisions to shorten defendants’ sentences and creates a secondary system of incarceration for individuals who violate probation and parole violations.”

While the country has seen a decline in crime for the past 20 years—and Pew gives imprisonment “some credit”—the organization says “criminologists and policy makers increasingly agree that we have reached
a ‘tipping point’ with incarceration, where additional imprisonment will have little if any effect on crime. Research also has identified new offender supervision strategies and technologies that can help break the cycle of recidivism.

There have been some efforts in the Sooner State to offer alternatives to prison, especially for drug offenders, like Drug Court and Vet Court, which provide treatment and rehabilitation, rather than incarceration, for drug-related crimes. The latter, which is based in Oklahoma County and targets military veterans, has seen a recent spike in usage, the Associated Press reported, which its organizers say is a “good problem” because it keeps people out of the prison system. “About 30 veterans initially were approved for the program,” the AP reported. “There are now 72 with about a dozen more awaiting approval. (Program co-founder Robert) Ravitz says only five have failed the program.”

Below, watch Kris Steele explain his bill to Oklahoma Horizon’s Rob McClendon.

—Holly Wall, News Editor