The road to prison can start on the front end or the back end of the criminal justice process. The front end is what we generally think of — a person is charged with a crime, that person is convicted and sentenced to prison. The back-end deals with those sent to prison for failing on parole or probation.
Back-end admissions are less conspicuous but affect our prison population in a significant way. To address the incarceration numbers in Oklahoma, lawmakers need to address both sides of the prison door.
A principle of probation is for certain low-level offenders to be safely monitored in the community and tackle the underlying issues of their illegal behavior while keeping a job and preserving their ties to the community. In many cases, it is used in lieu of prison. However, we are sadly seeing probation serve as a main driver of the system it intends to avoid. A 2017 report drafted by the Council of State Governments shows roughly 24% of Oklahoma prison admissions were due to probation violations. That translates to roughly 3,000 people behind bars.
Of those 3,000, more than half are in prison for a technical violation, such as staying out past curfew or missing a meeting. The annual cost to incarcerate these individuals is approximately $32 million.
If someone violates their terms of supervision, there should be consequences. Even more, if one poses a legitimate danger to the community, prison may be the best solution. But is sending a large number of individuals to prison who violate only the technical aspects of their supervision effective for public safety or fiscally responsible?
With prisons in Oklahoma over capacity, in disrepair and showing poor outcomes, the question is worth the Legislature’s attention.
This session, several bills were introduced that would have helped these issues. Senate Bill 616 would have implemented evidence-based practices such as allowing probationers and parolees to earn time off their supervision if they complied with their terms. The bill would have also created a system of graduated sanctions for those on supervision who violate terms. Utah, Texas and Georgia have shown that swift and certain sanctions, rather than severe sanctions for minor violations, are much more effective and bring better results for public safety. However, this bill and several others failed to pass.
The good news is that many in the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt have made criminal justice reform a priority. For three straight sessions, improvements in the corrections system have passed. This year, Gov. Stitt signed House Bill 1269, making the “de-felonization” of simple drug possession and changes to certain property crimes retroactive. This means some 2,000 individuals who, if sentenced today, would not have received any (or very little) prison time and may have their sentences reduced.
Additionally, Gov. Stitt has created a task force to examine the entire criminal justice system, which will hopefully include much needed changes to supervision
Those who are on probation still owe a debt to society, but society benefits when the system provides the structure and tools that can help reduce recidivism and keep Oklahoma safer.