Ray Carter | October 7, 2021
Contrasting estimates presented on sentencing reform plan
After a lengthy development process, officials have presented lawmakers with a proposed overhaul of sentencing laws in Oklahoma.
But expert analysis diverged notably on whether those changes would increase incarceration in Oklahoma, which already has one of the highest per-capita incarceration rates in the nation, or reduce it.
The Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council, composed of 22 members who represented a range of groups involved in corrections issues including prosecutors, has called for a wide range of sentencing changes, reducing maximum sentences in some instances while increasing punishments in others.
Those recommendations were presented to members of the Senate Public Safety Committee during a legislative study.
Justin Wolf, chief administrator of communications and government relations for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said the new sentencing matrix would reduce incarceration and lower taxpayer costs.
“What our analysis showed was a total reduction of about six months on average per inmate that would be under the new matrix,” Wolf said. “That looks like 868 inmates total over the course of 10 years.”
He said the changes would reduce the Oklahoma prison population by about one-half of 1 percent per year, or about 100 inmates annually out of more than 21,000 in a typical year.
Wolf acknowledged that estimate is “almost the inverse” of other analyses but suggested the difference between competing estimates was not significant.
But Felicity Rose, chief of research and policy for FWD.us, said the difference between her analysis and the Department of Corrections estimate is not minor, saying that within 10 years her estimate indicated that Oklahoma would have 1,000 more people incarcerated in state prisons under the proposed sentencing structure.
“I do think that there’s actually pretty significant differences,” Rose said. “That projection that we have would cost the state $83 million in taxpayer dollars, so it’s not nothing. I don’t think it’s right to hand-waive that away.”
She said the Department of Corrections analysis looked at only six crimes that account for about 25 percent of those now in prison, while FWD.us’s analysis reviewed 50 crimes that account for 90 percent of the prison population.
“It was a much bigger analysis that looked at a lot more people,” Rose said.
During the meeting, officials said prior efforts at sentencing reform failed because they were overly complex and created frustration among judges, prosecutors, and public defenders.
But one lawmaker suggested the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council’s plan may be viewed the same way.
“I’m already frustrated with this one, and I’ll tell you why: I’m hearing differences on what the results of this is going to be,” said Sen. Darcy Jech, R-Kingfisher.
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.