For more than a decade Oklahoma has maintained one of the highest incarceration rates on Earth, 56% higher than the national average. Oklahoma families have felt the impact of this punitive system. 26,000 Oklahoma children have a parent in a state prison. Those who favor the so-called “tough on crime” approach argue that a higher incarceration rate is necessary to reduce crime, but the data in Oklahoma does not support this conclusion. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Data Explorer, Oklahoma has a violent crime rate 15% higher than the national average. Likewise, the property crime rate is 38% higher in Oklahoma than the national average, including an astounding 95% more burglaries. It would appear that the benefits of high incarceration have yet to materialize. Kansas, one of Oklahoma’s neighbors, has a much lower incarceration rate. Kansas also has lower crime rates than Oklahoma. How could this be? Incarceration is supposed to make a state safer. To accept this status quo one would have to believe that Oklahomans are fundamentally worse and more prone to crime than people from Kansas. Currently the people of Oklahoma have made a losing bargain. We are less safe, and less free. How have Oklahomans given up so much personal liberty in exchange for safety and gotten so little of either?
Poverty: The Root of Crime
In order to undertake an explanation to these questions it becomes necessary to evaluate the underlying causes of crime, because the most effective criminal legal system does not just punish crime but actively prevents it. Sociologists have long been interested in the roots of crime. In 2013, scholars combed through over 2,000 individual studies and analyzed 17 of them in a “meta-analysis” to attempt to determine any consensus in the existing scholarly literature. The analysis concluded that 81% of the studies found a significant relationship between income inequality and property crime. This relationship spans the globe, including Sweden, where an estimated 1% increase in income inequality increased total crimes by 1.4%. Similar statistical outcomes were found in England, Israel, and the United States. Interestingly, this phenomena is also found across time, with studies confirming the link between income inequality and property crime in numerous historical studies.
The sheer variety of times and places where income inequality affected crime rates points to something fundamental about crime and human nature. Namely, that throughout time and geography, people commit property crimes out of a sense of desperation and need. In other words, from a rational choice perspective, as relative wealth increases, the benefit of crime decreases, and at a certain point, the costs of crime outweigh the benefits. However, for people who are at the bottom of the relative income ladder, the benefits of crime are immense to survival, and therefore, crime makes rational economic sense. If poverty is a significant creator of crime, then parts of Oklahoma’s criminal legal system are making crime worse.
Mass Incarceration Makes Oklahoma Less Safe
Oklahoma has an incarceration rate of 559 per 100,000 in 2020, the third highest in the nation. Oklahomans also stay in prison significantly longer than the national average. Oklahomans convicted of nonviolent offenses serve sentences that are twice as long as people convicted of the same crimes in Kansas. Finally, another 25,000 Oklahomans are under community supervision. Due to the mass incarceration policies employed Oklahoma is ranked 23rd in personal freedoms amongst the states by the Cato Institute.
As part of the negotiation between individual citizens and the Oklahoma government, Oklahomans have historically been willing to trade individual freedoms to increase public safety. Unfortunately, too many parts of Oklahoma's criminal legal system aren’t actually preventing crime but rather deepening poverty. For example, the burdensome fines and fees associated with even minor criminal offenses can be astronomical. Making matters worse eighty percent of all criminal defendants are indigent, meaning they can’t even afford an attorney. A criminal conviction can lead to the extraction of millions in wealth from already struggling communities. This burden falls disproportionately on rural communities and urban communities of color that are least equipped to fund courts.
Oklahoma’s excessive prison sentence lengths also create significant economic costs. Longer prison sentences have been found to have little to no effect on the crime rate, with one study concluding, that there is no connection between crime reduction and sentence severity “within the [severity] limits that are plausible in [w]estern [s]ocieties.” However, sentence length does effect job prospects after release, with a one year increase in incarceration decreasing employment and reducing earnings after release. Further, longer sentences tend to destabilize families with an incarcerated father raising the probability that a family lives below the poverty level by nearly 40 percent, while families lose an average $27,637 a year due to a loved one’s incarceration.
Our criminal legal system is not only failing to prevent crime, but actively creating it. Oklahomans overwhelmingly support a smaller and more nimble Government, and those views don’t stop at the criminal legal system. Oklahoma’s issues with crime and the state’s incarceration crisis were created by specific policy choices. The beauty of American democracy is that Oklahomans can choose to change these policies. We can choose a justice system that actively prevents crime, and that doesn’t make life worse for struggling families. We can choose to invest in mental health services instead of prison cells. We can choose to develop a criminal legal system that works.