Oklahoma's Justice Reinvestment Act, approved by the 2012 Legislature, wasn't an ambitious effort to reduce incarceration. It never envisioned a reduction in prison population. It predicted only a reduction in the annual increase in the Oklahoma prison population. That forecast was made before a provision permitting those serving 85 percent minimum sentences to accrue earned credits was eliminated from the bill.
House Bill 2131, passed by the 2011 Legislature, provided for prison diversion for some offenders and for GPS release for others. The original bill provided that persons serving multiple sentences without designation would serve them concurrently instead of consecutively. This provision was deleted, limiting the prison population reduction possibilities.
Justin Jones, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said recently that prison capacity had been reached. Nevertheless, the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council announced its intention to seek legislation to reduce the number of releases made possible through passage of a state question limiting the governor's role in parole.
The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Oklahoma, the global leader in female per capita incarceration, ranks third or fourth in overall incarceration. As a culture, we fail to realize that labels such as “felony” and punishments are human constructs. They didn't come down from Sinai. Other nations approach crime differently and use incarceration much less.
We should analyze what's gained and what's lost depending on where we draw the felony line and the severity of the response. Included in the analysis should be a discussion of the undesirability of mass incarceration.
Nationally, 25 percent of all black adult males are incarcerated and around one-third have correctional supervision. A 2006 report by the Oklahoma Criminial Justice Resource Center said 38.4 percent of adult black males in Oklahoma have a felony conviction. These realities negatively affect the ability to form families because of absence from the home, impaired housing and employment opportunities.
This summer, concern was expressed at an Oklahoma City Board of Education meeting that criminal records are preventing parental voluntarism at school functions. The study cited above found that as of July 2006, convicted felons constituted 8.2 percent of Oklahoma's adult population.
Oklahoma has numerous private prisons that require human beings as inventory in order to provide stockholders with dividends. In some cases they were courted to come here in the name of economic development. They have a business interest in long sentences and mass incarceration. The highest and best use is sought for real property. The prevalence of mass incarceration suggests a decision that for some people the highest and best use is imprisonment.
Mass incarceration is an economic concern. Has it reached the point that it's also a moral concern?
Basler is visiting professor of restorative justice and prison ministry at the Oklahoma City University branch of the Saint Paul School of Theology of Kansas City, Mo.