On prison count, Oklahoma is headed in the wrong direction

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: July 30, 2013

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.

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