A guard monitors the barred Rotunda area at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Credit: Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch

Several years ago, legislators in both Oklahoma and North Carolina began taking steps to address rising incarceration rates.

The number of incarcerated offenders in Oklahoma had increased by a few thousand inmates in the past decade, giving the state one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the nation.

The prison population was growing at a similar pace in North Carolina, and officials were expecting an additional 10 percent increase by 2020.

Both states analyzed criminal justice data that highlighted systematic reasons, such as tougher sentencing laws, that explained why more people were being locked up. With help from the Council on State Governments in crafting legislation, each state passed a series of reforms, known as Justice Reinvestment Initiatives, designed to cut down on rising incarceration. North Carolina approved its law in 2011, Oklahoma in 2012.

Graphic: Oklahoma vs. North Carolina in Prison Population Change

The results:

Oklahoma’s prison population continued to rise, climbing by about 800 inmates to nearly 27,000. The corrections system remains overcrowded and has been forced to contract with private prisons to house more inmates. State officials say more funds are needed to relieve overcrowding.

In North Carolina, the prison population declined by about 4,000 inmates over two years, which allowed the state to close five prisons this year.

David Guice, adult corrections director of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, said the decline has saved the state about $34 million so far in 2013.

“It’s actually going great,” said Guice, referring to the state’s JRI program, of which he was an early proponent.

North Carolina was one of several states mentioned in a recent Urban Institute report that highlighted the successes of JRI programs across the country. The report outlined millions of dollars in savings for states such as South Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Unfinished Work

Some prison and state officials have said the main reason Oklahoma has not seen results from its justice initiative is that it has not fully funded or implemented the program.

For instance, the JRI bill called for the creation of intermediate sanctions facilities where parole violators could be sent as an alternative to prison. Those facilities have not yet been created; officials say they’re using current prison space for the program. However, officials were not able to say how many offenders are housed in such programs.

Another provision called for an increase in parole officers to ensure all offenders leaving prison receive some form of supervision. By early July, prison officials said only 15 parolees had received the supervision.

Former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, who worked on the justice reform initiative, said the measure has failed because Gov. Mary Fallin’s office never really supported the reforms, despite expressing public support.

Oklahoma Prison Population
Credit: Shaun Hittle / Oklahoma Watch

The program called for more than $6 million in funding for this fiscal year, but only $3.5 million was allocated. Earlier this year, Fallin also rejected nearly $400,000 in federal funding, which partly caused Steele and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater to abruptly quit the group as co-chairmen in March.

The program called for more than $6 million in funding for this fiscal year, but only $3.5 million was allocated. About $2 million of the $3.5 million was to be awarded as public safety grants by the state Attorney General’s Office. On Wednesday, the first annual recipients of those grants were announced and include the Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Lawton and Ada police departments, as well as the Oklahoma and Tulsa County Sheriff’s Offices. A news release from Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the money is targeted toward areas with high violent crime rates and will go toward staffing, technology, training and crime analysis.

North Carolina Prison Population. png
Credit: Shaun Hittle / Oklahoma Watch

Steele also pointed to efforts by the governor to replace the JRI’s original nonpartisan working committee, which spearheaded the reforms, with a legislative body. Those efforts failed, but in the process, the only group supervising the program’s implementation was basically dismantled.

Alex Weintz, press secretary for Fallin, disagreed with Steele’s assessment that the governor doesn’t support the justice initiative.

“The governor supports the goals” of the initiative, Weintz said. “We are making progress.”

However, Weintz cautioned that the measure has only been in effect since November, and measurable decreases in prison population will take time.

“I think it’s way too early to be judging this,” he said.

Reaping Savings

Guice, the corrections director from North Carolina, said his state has been fortunate, with a supportive governor and a legislature that stepped up funding significantly for justice reforms. Because of early success, Guice said the program received $18 million this year to implement more of the reforms.

North Carolina’s program is expected to save a total of $560 million by 2017.

In Oklahoma the corrections system is nearly maxed out. In July, prison officials contracted for 300 more private prison beds as a stopgap measure for a system that’s at 98 percent capacity. At the Board of Corrections meeting in July, officials said the state is already short by about $10 million to $15 million to handle the increasing population this year.

“It’s going to cost us,” said Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, who’s heading a House study on how the state should handle the growing inmate population. Blackwell estimates the state will need an additional $25 to $30 million in next year’s budget just to address overcrowding at corrections facilities.

Guice said while he couldn’t speak to Oklahoma’s corrections problems, but a national roadmap for reducing prison populations is forming quickly based on the success of JRI in his state and others.

“Look at what’s happening across the country,” he said.

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