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Oklahoma is Number One ... in Incarceration Rates

by Matt Clarke

According to a June 2018 report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), Oklahoma’s incarceration rate has surpassed not only that of every other state in the U.S., but also of almost every other nation. To calculate the rates, PPI totaled the number of prisoners in both state prisons and local jails. The average incarceration rate in the U.S. was 698 prisoners per 100,000 residents.

With 1,079 prisoners per 100,000 residents, the rate in the Sooner state vaulted past that of the previous leader, Louisiana, whose rate fell to 1,052 per 100,000 thanks to recent criminal justice reforms passed by the state legislature.

Oklahoma’s own reform efforts include a 2016 referendum in which voters approved the reclassification of simple drug possession and some minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. According to Open Justice Oklahoma, fiscal year 2018 saw a 28 percent drop in the number of felony charges filed.

Another pair of laws passed in 2018 will end mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug-related and burglary offenses, as well as ease sentences for repeat drug offenders. But those efforts are expected to reduce only the growth in the rate of incarceration, not the rate itself, according to Kris Stelle, chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. 

“The Department of Corrections [DOC] is underfunded,” Steele said, adding that nearly 75 percent of the state prison population consists of non-violent offenders.

Because the DOC lacks “adequate resources” for treatment and programming, it is “simply warehousing individuals,” he added.

Both Steele’s comments and PPI’s report, “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018,” drew fire from Kevin Buchanan, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, who questioned PPI’s methodology and Steele’s terminology.

“Where I disagree is what constitutes a nonviolent offense or what constitutes an offender who is amenable to reform,” Buchanan said. “Not everybody wants to reform.”

The state, which has long had the highest incarceration rate for women in the U.S., has experienced a 27 percent increase in its overall imprisonment rate in just two decades, despite significant drops in property and violent crime rates. 

The length of time actually spent in prison is about the same for Oklahomans convicted of violent crimes as it is for other states’ violent offenders. But according to criminal justice expert Felicity Rose, nonviolent offenders in Oklahoma serve 180 percent to 200 percent of the time served by nonviolent offenders in other states. For drug offenses, the time in prison is also about double the national average. 

Oklahoma’s prison population dropped to 28,000 in December 2018, its first decline in over three years, though the DOC attributed that to greater use of time credits. Adding in the number of state prisoners held in local jails awaiting bed space in state prisons, the tally would have shown an increase.

Even with recent reforms, the DOC expects its prison population to continue to increase, adding 2,367 prisoners by 2026. As of June 18, 2018, prison officials said over 2,000 prisoners were using “temporary beds” set up in living areas, common spaces and other locations not designed for use as housing. Another 1,166 state prisoners were backed up in county jails awaiting DOC bed space. 

That totals about 5,600 prison beds that are needed, which is why DOC director Joe Allbaugh has recommended building two new facilities and increasing funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, as well as for education and vocational training to alleviate the prison overcrowding problem.

Governor Kevin Stitts has said he backs improvements to mental health and substance abuse services to reduce the number of people entering the prison system, as well as a review of crimes classified as “85 percent” offenses, for which prisoners must serve 85 percent of their sentences.

“It’s unacceptable for us to have this level of incarceration,” agreed Attorney General Mike Hunter. “It’s just not a good data point for the state and we’ve got to be aggressive about it.” 



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