The combination of Oklahoma laws requiring mandatory minimum prison sentences and a state policy of making prisoners pay for the costs of their incarceration has led to a situation in Oklahoma that constitutes what some might call a “worst-of-both-worlds” result: overcrowded prisons, coupled with newly-released prisoners finding themselves confronted with substantial government-imposed debts that they find difficult if not impossible to pay.
Oklahoma currently has more than 100 categories of crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences. After incarceration in Oklahoma, mandatory minimums can perhaps satisfy a public demand to “get tough” on crime, but can also lead to unanticipated and undesirable consequences. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation: as of 2010, for example, the state’s incarceration rate per 100,000 state residents was 654, significantly higher than the national average of 497. Oklahoma’s incarceration rate for women ranks first in the US, with the rate for men being not far behind.
One of the immediate consequences of keeping so many people in custody is the financial cost of maintaining prisons at overload capacity, or 116% of capacity in Oklahoma’s case. One way that the state has attempted to relieve taxpayers of the cost burden has been to shift at least some of it to the inmates themselves. Fees for anything from fingerprinting costs to courthouse security can be tacked onto a per diem rate of up to $50 payable while inmates are incarcerated.
The result can be that when an inmate has completed his or her sentence and is released, freedom comes with a bill that can easily reach five figures. It is a twist on the antiquated concept of “debtors’ prison”: instead of being thrown in jail for being in debt, the prisoner accumulates it there.
Compounding the matter is that in a soft economy with jobs hard to come by, a recently released prisoner can also have a past criminal record to contend with, making employment even harder to achieve. And without having a paycheck, reimbursing the government for its incarceration-related fees becomes more problematic.
Efforts are ongoing to alleviate the compound problem of prison overcrowding and frequently unpayable prison debts. One approach is a proposal in the state legislature referred to as the “Justice Safety Valve Act” to allow judges more discretion when sentencing individuals, as long as the crime for which they are convicted does not constitute a violent crime, or a sex crime that would require sex offender registration, repeat crimes or crimes in which the person was the leader of an organized criminal activity.
No time frame is available on when the Justice Safety Valve Act may become Oklahoma law. In the meantime, the best way to avoid running afoul of the negative consequences of being subjected to a harsh mandatory minimum sentence and running up a large debt in prison is to avoid being charged with a crime in the first place, or to secure the best possible legal defense against the charges being brought against you. Even if acquittal is not possible, experienced defense attorneys may still be able to negotiate an outcome less than the worst-case scenario described above.