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Prison overcrowding puts system in trouble

OKLAHOMA CITY — When it comes to putting people in prison, the United States is the best in the world. 

Oklahoma is the best of the best.

“Oklahoma is number one in the rate of female incarceration per capita. That’s number one not only in the United States, but in the world. And we’re number two for men,” Justin Jones said, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

He knows despite the appeal of locking up every criminal in the state, the prison system is in trouble. 

“I don’t think we can go any lower on the ratio of staff to offenders,” Jones said. “I don’t think we can go any lower on funding. At some point, on the current path that we’re on, we just wouldn’t receive any more offenders.” 

Jones said there just isn’t enough money to keep up with the number of people Oklahoma is putting in prison.

From 1980 to 2010, Oklahoma’s general population increased by nearly 24 percent.

During that same period, Oklahoma’s prison population increased by over 450 percent.

So why haven’t we noticed a dramatic increase in crime? 

According to Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz, it’s because there hasn’t been one.

“The numbers of people who’ve committed felonies that have actually been prosecuted has not, historically, gone up to the same degree that our prison population has gone up,” Ravitz said. 

According to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the number of index crimes in the state actually dropped by about 9 percent between 2000 and 2010. 

Only the number of violent crimes in the state increased, by 2 percent. 

Ravitz said it is Oklahoma’s sentencing structure that is putting more people behind bars. 

“The sentences that our drug users and addicts are getting is the cause of the large part of the [prison population] explosion,” Ravitz said.

 Justin Jones agrees. 

“Our sentencing lengths are longer than most other states in the nation,” Jones said.

“[In other states] after a second offense [a criminal] would get regional jail time up to two years for drug cases. We laugh at that. We give them 10, 15, 20 years,” Ravitz said.

Oklahoma courts hand down what Ravitz calls “crazy” long sentences more often than you might think. 

Just ask Tanya Renick, a woman serving 20 years at the Mable Basset Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma. 

Her crime: possession of a controlled substance.

“My first charge was one single pill. It was a Xanax pill that was found on my dresser. [My second charge was] a couple of pills with a non-label prescription on it, which was Lortab,” Renick said.

Each year, Oklahoma taxpayers spend around $16,000 to keep Tanya locked up.

 Her case is not unique. 

“The number one reception crime every year is possession, felony possession of drugs,” Jones said.

Bob Ravitz adds, “All the studies have shown that there is no increase in public safety when you lock up a bunch of drug users. Frankly, I want to lock up violent people. I want to lock up people who scare me and my family and your family. I don’t want to lock up somebody who’s an addict.” 

Oklahoma State Speaker of the House, Kris Steele, said, “We can be much smarter with the resources that we have available through community sentencing for those low-risk, non-violent offenders and ultimately produce better outcomes and increase public safety in the process.” 

Steele has been working on legislation to do just that.

This is part one of a three-part series examining the Oklahoma’s prison overcrowding. Next, Ian Parker takes us inside one of Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons.