Oklahoma is an outlier - both nationally and globally - when it comes to mass incarceration . Oklahoma has the third highest incarceration rate in the country while Oklahomans serve nearly double the sentence length of Kansans for common property crimes. Oklahoma has historically embraced the “tough on crime” approach, but this strategy has not made us any safer. The FBI has categorized Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Norman, each - as one of the top 100 cities with the most crime in the United States. Meanwhile, at the state level, Oklahoma has significantly higher rates of violent and property crimes than the national average. These crime statistics reflect a sobering reality. 30 years of investments in one of the most punitive incarceration systems in the world has failed to make Oklahomans more safe.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform supports common sense and responsible reforms to transform our criminal legal system into one that works for all Oklahomans. This system should ensure equal access to justice regardless of zip code by modernizing our antiquated criminal code. It should prioritize addiction treatment over punishment by ensuring communities have critical mental health resources, and its core priority should be ensuring taxpayer money is spent in a data driven, efficient way to keep every community in Oklahoma safe.
Modernizing Oklahoma’s Criminal Code with Common Sense Sentencing Reform
In Oklahoma, the very structure of the criminal code is fundamentally broken. The state’s criminal code hasn’t been updated for 30 years. It’s inconsistent and overly complicated, with each individual crime added by lawmakers on an individual basis over the history of the state. The criminal code has never been consolidated nor have old and irrelevant crimes been removed. For example, in 2022 it is still illegal to promote a horse tripping event, or to commit “useless acts” on the sabbath. Modernizing the criminal code is much more than a purely organizational reform for lawyers and judges. The current criminal code wastes taxpayer money by encouraging inconsistent and variable sentences from courtroom to courtroom while also creating unnecessarily long and complicated trials due to unclear laws - all at the taxpayer expense.
The majority of states, including neighbors Kansas and Texas, have realized that Oklahoma's approach to sentencing is flawed and have instead created a standardized sentencing classification system. A more modern standardized system can responsibly lower the incarceration rate without an effect on public safety by ensuring that Oklahomans only go to prison long enough to keep the public safe. Oklahoma’s current system has left state prisons filled with aging inmates who pose little to no risk to the public. Oklahoma incarcerates people over the age of 65 at a seventy two percent higher rate than the national average. Modernizing this system would also ensure that sentences are approximately the same for each crime regardless of socio-economic status, race, or geography. A modernized sentencing classification scheme can simultaneously lower the incarceration rate while ensuring that the most serious crimes are dealt with accordingly.
Smart Investments in Crime Prevention
In 2016 Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly passed a reform which reclassified many low-level felony drug and property crimes into misdemeanors. During that same election voters overwhelmingly supported a plan to invest the savings created by lowering the imprisonment rate into local treatment and addiction counseling services. Oklahoma voters demanded that the State stop treating addiction as a criminal legal issue and instead treat it as a public health crisis. Research consistently shows that diversion options reduce the crime rate, keeping the public more safe than incarceration alone, while also being cheaper for the taxpayer.
However, it has been over seven years since these reforms were passed and the counties who were promised that money by the Oklahoma voters have yet to receive a cent. This creates a situation where local governments, who Oklahomans trust the most and have the most insight into the needs of their citizens, are drowning under an addiction crisis. A crisis which destabilizes communities and makes Oklahoma less safe for us all. Investing in county level addiction and mental health services as was required by the Oklahoma voter would go a long way to ending this public health crisis, reducing the crime rate, and giving every Oklahoman a chance to contribute to society.
Reducing Stress on Families Through Fines and Fees Reductions
Oklahoma funds its court system on the backs of criminal defendants through the collection of fines and fees attached to a criminal case. A new study conducted in Oklahoma County shows the extent of the problem, with those convicted of a misdemeanor offense owing thousands of dollars in fines and fees. This is not only a problem for the individual - who has to choose between paying court debt and basic necessities - but also a problem for the court system who relies on fines and fees collection for funding. For example in Oklahoma County only 4% of outstanding court debt was ever paid, meaning that the Court system is relying on funding that it will never see, because the individuals simply cannot afford to pay it.
This is not an Oklahoma County specific problem, and actually has a worse effect on rural communities who are less economically flexible. Fines and fees collection drains money from individuals who would otherwise spend it putting food on the table and paying bills, and instead places it in the coffers of the State. These impacts are particularly acute in low income rural communities and urban dense communities of color. Approximately, 80% of criminal defendants cannot afford an attorney and placing more economic burdens on these individuals only worsens poverty in our State. We know that poverty is a significant driver of violent crime so this funding mechanism is actively making Oklahoma less safe by burying criminal defendants in an economic hole from which few escape.
Making Government More Transparent
Oklahoma spends over $550 million dollars of taxpayer money on the prison system but the taxpayers and other relevant stakeholders have no insight into what exactly their money is doing. This is because Oklahoma relies on an antiquated system of data collection that hasn’t been updated for decades. This leaves the taxpayers, advocates, and even lawmakers themselves, blind to the realities of our system through a sheer lack of information and transparency.
A modernized data collection system would offer a solution to this problem. First, it allows the public to see what their money is accomplishing and to hold elected officials accountable for the inner workings of the criminal legal system. Equally as important however, it would also allow lawmakers to understand the unintended consequences of legislation and to pinpoint problem areas in the system so that taxpayer money can be spent more efficiently. The private sector and other states, including Iowa, have used advanced data analysis to increase efficiency for decades. It is time for Oklahoma to step into the 21st century.
Incentivizing Work by Creating Employment Centered Reentry
Research has clearly shown that, when exiting incarceration, the number one factor in a successful reentry is obtaining a quality job. A quality job is obviously better for the individual, who gets more job stability at a higher wage, but it is also better for society at large. Better jobs means better access to housing, food and basic needs for struggling families. A quality job not only reduces the chances that an individual will return to crime, but it also leads to an increase in tax collection and buying power in rural economies. Getting quality jobs for those exiting incarceration could act as a transformative force for those rural communities who are currently struggling so immensely.
A re-entry system that targets quality jobs gives every Oklahoman a chance to contribute to our State regardless of past mistakes. It is estimated that the United States loses 87 billion dollars annually keeping the formerly incarcerated out of the workforce. Meanwhile Oklahoma is facing a shortage of workers in all fields, but especially in quality job fields that the formerly incarcerated are trained to excel in, such as manufacturing and construction. Focusing on these areas would serve to lift up all of Oklahoma, simultaneously improving outcomes for the formerly incarcerated while reducing crime and giving Oklahoma’s economy a shot in the arm.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is focused on these areas to enact common sense and responsible reforms to safely decrease incarceration, ensure that Oklahoma’s system isn’t worsening and criminalizing poverty, and creating a criminal legal system that works for all Oklahomans. For far too long Oklahoma has been an outlier in both the world and our country when it comes to incarceration, and the majority of Oklahomans find this unacceptable. These problems aren’t unsolvable. Each of these issues represents an opportunity for Oklahoma to transform its criminal legal system into one that acts as a model for the world by promising the fair administration of justice while ensuring that every single Oklahoman feels safe, productive and free.