Thursday, February 3, 2011

Oklahoma: "Tough on Crime" No More

Oklahoma's "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach to criminal justice has collided head-on with a budget deficit estimated at $600 million, and prison costs that have increased more than 30 percent in the last decade, according to the Associated Press.

For years, lawmakers have pushed each other to lengthen prison sentences and increase the number of criminals behind bars. This week, the new Speaker of the House Kris Steele is expected to unveil a package of proposals that would divert thousands of nonviolent offenders from the prison system and increase up paroles.

According to the Associated Press, Oklahoma's prison population has grown from 22,600 in 2000 to nearly 26,000 now, and the budget from $366 million to $483 million last year. Unless the Legislature provides $9 million in emergency funding this year, prison officials say guards will have to take three furlough days a month beginning in March, straining the inmate-to-guard ratios that prison officials say are already the most dangerous they've been in decades.

"Truthfully, it's popular to be tough on crime," Senator Harry Coates told the Associated Press. "But when I saw what we were spending on corrections and who was going into our adult prisons and for what reasons . you figure out it's not exactly like you thought," he said.

Experts on national sentencing expect almost every state to adopt the new approach sooner or later — perhaps most this year because of the state fiscal crisis. According to the Associated Press, the Pew Center is now working with policymakers in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Texas and Washington about adjusting sentencing policies. Nationally, states spend an estimated $50 billion each year in locking up criminals — four times the amount spent two decades ago and second only to Medicaid spending — according to the Pew Center. A study released by the group last year shows the amount states spent locking up inmates grew nearly 350 percent from $11 billion in 1987 to $48 billion in 2008.

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