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The State of Oklahoma: State will soon be top in nation for incarceration

While Oklahoma has always prized individual liberty, it has proven very adept at locking people up. The state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation. The prison system is operating at 115 percent of capacity. The Department of Corrections director wants two new prisons and a thousand more guards. “It's a system that's hurting and is going to break, and we're going to have some serious incident if we don't take some corrective action,” Joe Allbaugh said last week. “We tend to incarcerate everybody who breaks the law as opposed to getting those individuals into some type of program that will help them.”

There are theories about Oklahoma's incarceration rate and its relation to culture and the various social ills that have long troubled the state. And then there are facts: Oklahoma's crime rates are higher than the national average. And the growth in time served by inmates has risen dramatically. Oklahoma sends more people to prison per capita than other states and keeps them there longer per capita. Thus, an incarceration rate that has become an embarrassment to political and business leaders at a time when the state is already the subject of national media attention for its budget chaos and teacher unrest. Kris Steele, former Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said recently that Oklahoma, which has long been tops in locking women away, will soon lead the nation in overall incarceration. Steele has been working for two years to reduce the number of people in prison for nonviolent crimes. “It's our biggest driver — sending nonviolent offenders to prison for 80 percent longer than the national average, clogging our prison system with offenders who do not pose a risk to the community,” he said in an interview. According to Department of Corrections statistics compiled last week, 45 percent of the males and 62 percent of the females incarcerated in the state system are in for nonviolent offenses.

Steele is chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, which campaigned successfully in 2016 for a state question, 780, reducing some drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Read more on


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