Growth in Prison Population Persists

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Ben Fenwick/Oklahoma Watch

A guard tower at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. Oklahoma's incarceration rates remain high, according to newly released 2014 figures.

Despite efforts to reduce incarceration, Oklahoma’s prison population is growing at a steady pace.

The trend includes a surge of state inmates being held in county jails in recent months and the rate of women in prison reaching its highest recorded level.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections data show that since late 2014, a year when early-release policies were relaxed to help reduce incarceration, the number of inmates in corrections facilities has increased by nearly 1,200, reaching 28,095 near the end of 2015. The total also rose throughout 2014.

Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics also show that Oklahoma had the second highest incarceration rate in the nation in 2014, at 700 inmates per 100,000 population. The national rate was 471.

Oklahoma ranked fourth in 2012 and second in 2013.

In addition, the state also led the nation in rates of imprisonment of female offenders in 2014, the latest year for which national data is available. Oklahoma’s lockup rate for women – 143 per capita in 2014 – was more than twice the national rate and the highest it’s been since the Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking numbers in 1978. Oklahoma Watch calculations indicate the rate likely increased in 2015, with total women in corrections facilities reaching 3,002.

Oklahoma also had the highest rate nationally of prisoners housed in in-state private prison facilities, including halfway houses, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data for 2014. By last month, the number had increased by about 9 percent, to 8,044.

The resurgence of a jail backup intensified in fall of last year.

In 2014, Corrections Director Robert Patton, who has resigned, began trying to reduce the number of state inmates being temporarily held in county jails until they could be transferred to a prison. The state pays the counties for each day that an inmate sentenced to prison is housed in a jail. That group is referred to as the “jail backup.”

A backup of around 1,700 inmates at the end of 2013 was whittled down to 313 inmates by the end of 2014. However, the backup number has since more than doubled to 795, Corrections Department figures from Dec. 28 show.

Much of the increase occurred in October and early November, when counties across the state sent sentencing documents for hundreds of inmates to DOC, officially transferring custody to the state. The sudden jump came after the Corrections Department notified counties that because of a change in state law, which took effect Nov. 1, records for all inmates sentenced before Nov. 1 were required to be delivered to DOC by Nov. 4.

Under the new law, counties now face a three-day deadline after sentencing to deliver those records to the Corrections Department. If they are late, DOC will not pay the counties for the inmate’s stay in the jail between the time of sentencing and the time the documents are delivered. The law’s purpose was to reduce the payments the state was paying counties during periods when delivery of the sentencing documents was delayed. Such records are official notice that an offender is headed for a DOC facility.

Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for the department, said the agency must find bed space for the higher number of state inmates being held in jails, but that will take time.

“In trying to find more bed space, we have to work with our field operations people, and they work with the fire marshal and the facilities to figure out which rooms we can use (to add bunks) and where we can squeeze more beds,” Gerszewski said.

To address the population growth, the department requested $17.4 million from the Legislature for the next fiscal year.

Lynn Powell, president of the Oklahoma chapter of the prisoner advocacy group Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, said the state’s growing prison population, coupled with looming budget woes, contribute to a criminal justice system that has become unsustainable.

“Considering we’ve got this big budget hole we’re looking at, are we willing to bankrupt the state to keep all those people locked up and incarcerating at the rate we are?” Powell said. “It’s ridiculous when we’re working to lower our rates and instead we’re raising them.”

In 2011, the state passed measures collectively known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in an effort to lower the state’s incarceration rate. However, much of the initiative was sidelined after conflicts between Gov. Mary Fallin’s office and individuals sitting on the initiative’s implementation committee.

In 2014, Fallin’s office worked to revive the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and in 2015 Fallin pushed the Board of Corrections to consider changing how early-release credits are awarded to inmates serving time for so-called 85 percent crimes, which require offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole or early release. Later that year, the board adopted the measure, which allows credits to accrue while the inmate is serving the 85 percent portion of their sentence.

In 2014, to address overcrowding, the Corrections Department began putting bunks in prison common areas such as gymnasiums to house the inmates, while also restoring early-release credits to some inmates who had lost them because of misconduct.

In October 2015, the Corrections Department increased the number of beds it leases from private prison companies – Corrections Corp. of America and Geo Group. The department has projected an overall increase of 1,200 inmates over the next year.

Oklahoma has consistently held the highest rate of female incarceration in the nation since 1998, the data shows, and that rate has increased by more than 16 percent since Oklahoma Watch highlighted the issue in 2011.

Oklahoma’s private prison incarceration rate has been the highest in the nation since 2011, the data show, and the state with the second highest rate in 2014 was New Mexico, with a 147 inmates in in-state private prisons per 100,000 population.

The state has continued to look for ways to reduce the prison population.

In her weekly column issued this week, Gov. Mary Fallin pointed to steps aimed at addressing the large prison population.

“In our criminal justice system, we continued to focus on ‘smart on crime’ policies. We passed legislation that allows judges to impose shorter sentences for some nonviolent crimes,” Fallin wrote. “The Justice Safety Valve Act is an attempt to divert more nonviolent offenders such as those with substance abuse addiction into alternative programs and away from the state’s overcrowded prisons. The state provided judges with greater discretion in other drug cases involving mandatory life sentences for repeat drug offenders.”

  • Like my husband there are a lot if prisoners who should already have timed served…. However Oklahoma allows their judges to give out max sentencing for first time offenders., while there are hundreds of others who can get by with the same crime over Andover and over.. I don’t think its right to punch someone just because your haven’t a bad day. Judge. These are human beings you have their life’s in your hands.. You have my husband 20yrs for basically a public drunk his laser had just come from some kinda of surgery he was not in his right mind at all. The judge well she just likes to though her authority around and just that she would be cute and give my husband along with many more who stand in front of her the max sentencing she can… Its all a power play and she gets by with it Oklahoma still allows thus woman to be a judge and take peoples life’s in her hands and sends them away forever thus is not right… My husband deserves to be released your holding a good man down trying to brake him.. Once they reach work release a lot of the guards like to try and push the men and women’s buttons just to see them get write ups.. Not right yet the guards are allowed to talk to the prisoners like they are no better than a dog with rabies.. I believe thus really needs to be looked in on. Think about Oklahoma judges there are a couple if good ones but there’s one women who needs to loose her right to be a judge she us only in it for the hpoweron’t give 2cents about whinchat or why just put them in orison for the max time that crime carries she don’t care if its your firstborn your 40th its all the same to get 20 years for a public drunk that the officers couldn’t get their reports right they conflicted themselves. The lawyer was drugged up from what ever he had just done. The judge on a power trip and a man guilty on the crime if public drunk yet he got 20yrs just as if he had drive 40different time drunk.. Yes we know he was in the wrong but judge how many times do you have a glass of wine or a scotch and drive most if you every day you don’t fibro orison for 20yrs.. And everyone wonders why Oklahoma prisons are so full.. Look at The judges lawyers D.. A anyone who puts someone else life in theirs its a power trip for most only because they catch people who brake the law well what about them who catches them it sure isn’t the police or anyone else if you don’t have money your stuck at the mercey of Oklahoma’s finest lawmakers and officers. Who don’t care… Treat them like humans and stop talking to them like they are.trash their note my husband is a wonderful man who has been in since 2010 and us still serving time for his public drunk all because the courts system in Oklahoma sorry for the LAN. Sucks get rid of f the power player they don’t deserve a robe or a badge or a seat get rid of them

  • Reginald

    Typical offender related response; take no responsibility for your actions and blame everyone else. Also might help if you used spell check…

    • Oklahoma Watch

      Reginald, thanks for the comment. We located and fixed one typo.

  • David Hathorn

    Just like my son. He was two blocks away from where the crime happened and he was sentenced to the same charges as the guy that did the crime. Two people even said he was two blocks away in the back seat of the car and he got 15 years, 10 in 5 out.

  • Baruch

    Private prisons usually have quota agreements with state governments. Odds are that Oklahoma has such agreements. Not maintaining the quota results in higher fees for the state , so it becomes an economic driver…incarceration of people = lower rates for the state. THIS SHOULD BE ILLEGAL. This is an obscenity. For profit prisons are truly an evil concept, and giving the state government economic incentive to lock people up is so so wrong. If your loved one has fallen prey to this, you can fight it but you will have to work hard to prove the connection between the injustice done to your loved one and the state’s quota agreement with the for profit prisons. The best thing would be for a lot of people to file a class action suit against the state.

  • Coy Coleman

    First you need opportunity, you need jobs, you need Prosecutors that know incarceration is not the only route to reform. Incentives for Private Prisons need to end. Halfway Houses need greater supervision and oversight. When people are prosecuted for UnConstitutional Laws they need to sue until it is too costly to imprison large swaths of the State’s Population. Make it too costly to turn your State into a Slave Plantation. Did you know that MetroTech or whatever name it is going by now days is run by Oklahoma Prison Industries and that is subcontracted to a company in China? Yeah. They have no incentive to stop the Prison Industrial Complex as long as the dollars keep pouring in.

  • homebuilding

    Oklahoma has more people locked up than it has farmers….a rather shocking comparison