Oklahoma has an earned reputation as a tough-on-crime state; only one other state in the union has a higher proportion of its citizens in prison than this one. But even if one agrees with the premise that more inmates equals less crime, it is still possible to have too much of a good thing.
Keeping so many locked away in state prisons requires a commitment to providing adequate space in those facilities, But, if the state government fails to meet that commitment then a host of problems will follow. Prison overcrowding can have short and long-term negative consequences for the incarcerated and society alike, including contributing to a recidivism problem that compounds the overcrowding situation.
That is in part why Oklahoma voters approved legislative initiatives in the November election to combat overcrowding in the state prisons by reducing the severity of some drug possession and property-related crimes from felonies (which can lead to a state prison sentence) to misdemeanors (which more likely result in confinement in a county jail). But is this enough to solve Oklahoma’s problem with prison overcrowding? According to recent findings from The Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, the answer appears to be, “No.”
In fact, according to the Task Force, the state’s prison population remains set to grow by another 7,000 beyond its current size of more than 26,000 people unless something changes, which in turn will require construction of another three state prisons to handle the increase. The trouble, in a nutshell, is that for decades Oklahoma’s “lock ‘em up” approach has generated a negative momentum that may be becoming unsustainable without significant reforms that go beyond simply reclassifying crimes to misdemeanors and pushing the overcrowding problem down to the county level.
The seeming inability of the state to rein in the expansion of its number of inmates has implications that are much more serious than figuring out how to come up with more money to pay to keep them behind bars (current estimates are that the state will require almost $2 billion to fund new construction and to keep current facilities operating over the next 10 years). Already the opinion of some in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, including its Director, is that the current situation of too many prisoners, too few staff with too much personnel turnover and aging, decrepit facilities is a toxic combination that makes the prisons an increasingly dangerous place for inmates and Department of Corrections employees alike.
Whether Oklahoma’s government will take the additional steps needed to halt or at least slow down the growth of its burgeoning inmate population, and what those steps may be, remains to be seen. What is certain right now is that pending such needed changes the best way to avoid becoming entangled in the dangerous and sometimes counterproductive prison system here is to do whatever possible to head off the prospect of being convicted or, if that is not possible, to maximize your chances of an alternative to a prison sentence.
How much you can influence the outcome if you are charged with a crime in Oklahoma depends on variables, like the underlying facts behind the prosecution’s case, whether you have been convicted before, and the quality of your legal representation. Choosing the right criminal defense attorneys – one with investigative skills, negotiating savvy and trial defense experience – is very possibly the most important thing you can do to control your own destiny instead of becoming another tragic statistic in a penal system that is showing signs of severe stress.