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Why Oklahoma Has The Highest Incarceration Rate In The U.S.

Inmates walk their training dogs at Mabel Bassett Correction Center in McLoud.
Kate Carlton Greer
Inmates walk their training dogs at Mabel Bassett Correction Center in McLoud.

Oklahoma has now overtaken Louisiana as the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with John Carl, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Oklahoma, about how the rate got so high and what kind of overhaul is in motion.

Interview Highlights

On what's behind Oklahoma's high incarceration rate

"It's not about higher levels of crime, that's for certain. Southern parts of the United States do have slightly higher rates of crime, but generally speaking, I think if you look across the southern half of the United States, you have the mass incarceration boom. In Oklahoma for example, our incarceration boom really kicked off like most places in the country in the 1980s, and just exploded. We're up probably 700 percent since 1980, and our crime rate's up maybe 20 percent. So we're not in the same ballpark at all. People who want to try to draw that simple correlation have trouble with the math, I think."

On how expensive it is to maintain the prison system

"It's the third, maybe the fourth largest [expenditure] in the state of Oklahoma. And so when you look at what Oklahomans spend their tax dollars on, education is No. 1, health and human services two and then corrections tends to be three. We've had a strike that made some national news here for teacher pay, as teachers here have gone for years without pay raises. And the truth of the matter is that, one of the reasons that our budget is so tight is that we spend a disproportionately large amount of our tax revenue on locking up our fellow citizens."

On conditions in the state's prisons

"We're overcrowded. I think our state [Department of Corrections] reports right now, I want to say it's like 113 percent of capacity. ... The main women's prison is Mabel Bassett [Correctional Center], and I teach a class inside that prison where I take OU students into the prison and then we have class with inmates inside the prison, and part of that deal is always a tour. Well those women are basically bunk bedded into the day areas because they're so overcrowded that there literally [is] not cell space for them. They've had to convert some of the cells into shower rooms and changing rooms. But a significant chunk of the prison population inside that prison are literally sleeping in the day room in bunk beds."

On Oklahoma voters approving a ballot question in 2016 to reclassify some drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, and if that's made a difference

"Not yet. Those reforms have not been fully implemented. But I think when they are, it will, and in fact our legislature passed about six or seven measures this last session that are designed to kind of shrink the prison population to some degree, some of which had to do with making it easier to get your nonviolent offense expunged, which as a criminologist I have to say I think is a really important thing, because if you're in for a small crime and then you get your crime expunged, then you can kind of ... it's like a Get Out of Jail Free card, you can keep going and don't have to carry that stigma with you forever. So that was, particularly for nonviolent felonies, made it easier. We've separated out drug possession and drug felonies from other kinds of punishments where previously they've been kind of linked together and tied together.

"So I think, honestly those seven things that we passed this time have a chance to help us. But of course, like all these things, we have a policy in this state — lots of states have similar things — we called it truth in sentencing here, where if you're a violent offender, you can't even go up for parole until 85 percent of your sentence is finished, and certain large amounts of drug criminals were classified as violent offenders. So even if you set these things into place, they're not retroactive, it doesn't eliminate your prison population rapidly. I think the long-term hope is it will work, but it's going to take a while."

On punishment versus rehabilitation in the U.S. criminal justice system

"I think the United States in general has a kind of a punitive attitude about offenders, and it actually in my opinion comes from our very early Puritan roots, of slapping the scarlet A on people. And we've just kind of carried this attitude that somehow punishment works, and yet what we know is, from our own experience, most of us don't learn very much from punishment except to hate the person that punished us."

This segment aired on July 2, 2018.

Here & Now co-host Jeremy Hobson started telling stories on the radio when he was a kid and hasn't stopped since.
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