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Okla. finding alternatives for booming criminal population

This is part three of a three-part series. Watch the other pieces here and here.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Lawmakers have voted to seek alternate ways of dealing with Oklahoma’s booming criminal population.

“Statistically, for a person who is a low-risk, non-violent offender, when that person comes out after being incarcerated, they tend to a greater risk to society than even when they went in,” House Speaker Kris Steele said.

Steele’s bill, HB3052, was signed by the governor this May.

It allocates resources for law enforcement to use in prevention and treatment programs for Oklahoma’s criminals.

“Instead of approaching the situation with a one-size-fits-all approach in that we just incarcerate everyone right off the bat, we can be much smarter with the resources that we have available,” Steele said.

Oklahoma’s prisons constantly operate at near capacity.

Steele said he wrote the bill partly to try to curb the $250 million increase in funding he said our corrections system will need over the next few years.

The bill is based on a similar piece of legislation passed in Texas five years ago.

“The state of Texas was pretty much where we are today in 2007,” Steele said. “In five years their violent crime rate has dropped and it’s as low as it’s been in 30 years and for the first time in state history, they actually closed a state prison.”

Programs like the ones Steele supports have already been working in Oklahoma.

Women in Recovery is a program that has kept dozens of non-violent female offenders out of prison.

“They gave me the tools that I needed. They helped teach me how to go back from being an addict,” Brooke Larson said.

Larson was serving a 10-year sentence for trafficking.

Now she has a job, is going back to school and once again has custody of her four kids.

She credits Women in Recovery for getting her clean.

“If I were still in prison, I’d probably still be addicted,” Larson said.

Other lawmakers, including Gov. Mary Fallin, have acknowledged the program.

“Last calendar year we had fewer women receptions than we’ve had in quite some time,” Justin Jones said, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. “It’s directly related to prevention programs like Women in Recovery.”

But even Speaker Steele admits these programs, along with his bill, won’t be enough to prevent our booming prison population from continuing to grow.

“It’s a good foundation,” Steele said.

Steele, along with other lawmakers, attorneys and state officials, said Oklahomans need to rethink how the state tackles crime and focus more resources on prevention rather than incarceration.