Report outlines state’s astounding pivot on criminal justice, identifies more reform is needed to save more money, improve public safety, and strengthen Oklahoma families
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK — A new report released today, “Turning the Page: Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice Reform Story,” highlights five years of Republican-led and voter-supported criminal justice reform efforts, demonstrating how these policies have safely reduced the prison population while making Oklahoma’s justice system fairer and less expensive to taxpayers.
The new report includes in-depth, qualitative and quantitative research from never-before-released analyses of local and state data, as well as the personal stories of a large and diverse group of people who have been and continue to be impacted by the criminal justice system. Turning the Page details the positive effect of recent reforms as well as the pressing challenges that continue to hold Oklahoma back.
Some of the stark findings include:
- Over the last five years, Republican governors and legislators — and strong majorities of Oklahoma voters — have enacted policies that together have reduced the state’s prison population by 21%. This change was driven by reductions in admissions for drug possession, low-level property offenses, and supervision revocations.
- The number of felony charges filed in Oklahoma has fallen by one-third — meaning more than 15,000 people each year now have an easier time finding and keeping a job, maintaining stable housing, and supporting their families.
- Yet today, Oklahoma still has the third highest overall imprisonment rate and the second highest women’s imprisonment rate in the country.
- Compared to other states, people sentenced to prison in Oklahoma spend nearly twice as long behind bars for property crimes such as larceny and fraud, and more than twice as long for drug sale or trafficking convictions — 35 months in Oklahoma compared to an average of 17 months in other states.
- Oklahoma’s criminal justice system has constricted the state’s economic growth by removing people from the workforce, subjecting them to harsh sentences, and then imposing significant barriers to their return to work.
- As people move through the system from arrest to sentencing, all Oklahomans are not treated the same by the criminal justice system and some people are unfairly punished just because of where they live.
- Black people are imprisoned at 4.6 times the rate of white people, accounting for 28% of the state’s prison population, even though they only make up 7% of the state’s population.
- Oklahoma spends more than $552 million on the prison system each year without any real public safety benefits. If the state lowered its imprisonment rate to the level of New Mexico, which has a similar crime rate, taxpayers would save more than $270 million every year.
- In Oklahoma, about 106,000 children, or 11% of children in the state, have had an incarcerated parent or guardian, a substantially higher percentage than in the neighboring states of Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and Missouri.
“Oklahomans should be proud of the meaningful progress the state has made,” said jasmine Sankofa, Policy and Research Manager for Criminal Justice Reform at FWD.us. “In 2016, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate in the nation because of a reliance on harsh sentences. Voters and policymakers have taken important first steps, but more work remains to reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate and strengthen its economy, communities, and families.”
From 1978 to 2016, Oklahoma’s prison population grew 615%, from slightly over 4,000 people to almost 30,000. This explosive growth was due to a massive increase in felony filings even as the number of crimes reported in the state declined.
In 2016, voters approved State Question 780, which reclassified simple drug possession and theft of less than $1,000 from a felony to a misdemeanor. The legislature followed up this landmark reform over the next five years with bills aimed at safely reducing the prison population, streamlining the parole process for nonviolent offenses, providing additional reentry support and expanding opportunities for record expungement. Governors Mary Fallin and Kevin Stitt have both championed these important reforms.
Today, Oklahoma is on the path to finding a better way to reduce crime, keep communities safe, and strengthen the state.
“We have a real opportunity in Oklahoma to boost the workforce and give formerly incarcerated people a second chance to contribute to their communities and make a living wage to support their families,” said Doug Shaffer, a second chance employer who was incarcerated for 21 years. “As a state, we must find more ways to support people with criminal convictions by providing reentry services and removing barriers to employment and housing so that we can continue to build on the progress of the last few years.”
“Oklahoma’s progress on criminal justice reform changed my life. I am home with my family today because Oklahoma voters and state leaders knew something had to change,” said Kevin Ott, whose life without parole sentence for a drug offense was commuted in 2018. “I am grateful to have a second chance to give back to my community and contribute to my family.”
“Republican policymakers and voters saw that Oklahoma’s long prison sentences were wasting taxpayer dollars with little to no public safety benefit,” Sankofa said. “While this progress is extremely encouraging, Oklahoma still has much more work to do.”
The full report can be viewed and downloaded here.
About FWD.us: FWD.us is a bipartisan political organization that believes America’s families, communities, and economy thrive when more individuals are able to achieve their full potential. For too long, our immigration and criminal justice systems have locked too many people out of the American dream. Founded by leaders in the technology and business communities, we seek to grow and galvanize political support to break through partisan gridlock and achieve meaningful reforms. Together, we can move America forward.