THE number of men and women in U.S. prisons declined in 2012 for the third straight year — no thanks to Oklahoma. While inmate counts are falling nationwide, they continue to climb in the Sooner State.
A report last week from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics said the 1.5 million people in prison last year represented a drop of 27,770 from the previous year. Federal prisons saw an increase in their population, but state prison counts fell by nearly 30,000.
About half that total came in California, in response to a directive from the Supreme Court to relieve prison crowding. But in all, nine states saw their prison populations drop by more than 1,000 inmates. Among those were Arkansas and Texas, hardly bastions of liberal governance.
Arkansas in 2011 approved reforms that include easing sentencing guidelines for low-level offenders and moving them instead to diversion programs. The state's inmate count fell by about 1,400 the following year.
Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project, told The New York Times that Arkansas was “a great example of a state that made some deliberate policy choices to say we can actually reduce recidivism and cut our prison group at the same time.”
Oklahoma appeared on its way to doing the same last year when the Legislature approved a bill called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). It required that felons be supervised for nine months after their release from prison, established a way to keep nonviolent offenders from immediately being locked back up for parole or drug court violations, set up mental health and substance abuse assessments before felons were released, and created a grant program to help local law enforcement agencies.
Texas is among the states that have adopted similar changes. But the Oklahoma reforms have been pretty much ignored and, with the author of the JRI bill now out of the Legislature, there's little political will to change that.
States that are showing reductions in their prison population “are states that are thinking about how they can apply research-based alternatives that work better and cost less,” Gelb said. Meantime in Oklahoma, a high-ranking GOP state senator said recently, “If there's one thing that I think everyone is in agreement on, it's that our prison populations are going to continue to grow.”
In the past 25 years, Oklahoma's prison population has grown from about 11,000 to just over 26,000. Nationally, the prison population grew consistently during the same time period and peaked in 2009. It's fallen — slowly — ever since. Last year, the U.S. prison population dropped by 1.7 percent; Oklahoma's increased by 3.4 percent.
The U.S. imprisonment rate in 2012 fell to 480 prisoners per 100,000 residents. Oklahoma's imprisonment rate is 648 per 100,000 residents — fourth-highest nationally, behind only Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Stanford University professor Joan Petersilia, who focuses on criminal justice, told the Times that the trend toward reducing inmate populations may have begun as a way for states to tighten their belts but has evolved into an effort to think anew about who should go to prison and for how long. “I don't think in modern history we've seen anything like this,” she said.
Perhaps someday we'll see it in Oklahoma, too. For now the state will continue in the wrong direction — with understaffed prisons constantly bumping up against capacity, plenty of laws intended to keep more people locked up for longer periods of time, and little or no desire to try something different.