- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - President Barack Obama’s trip last week to a federal prison in El Reno, where he urged steps to curb the explosive growth of federal inmates, resonates soundly in Oklahoma, which consistently locks up more of its population than almost every state in the nation.

Obama wants to scale back harsh mandatory federal sentences for drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses, and his message could equally apply to sentencing guidelines in Oklahoma, where more than half of the inmates in prison have convictions for nonviolent crimes. Fully one-quarter of Oklahoma inmates are imprisoned for drug-related offenses.

With the state’s prison population expected to grow by another 1,200 inmates over the next year, bipartisan momentum appears to be building in Oklahoma to resume work on a series of criminal justice initiatives that have stalled in recent years either from a lack of funding or a shortage of political will to implement them.

Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin sent a memo to the Board of Corrections directing them to allow inmates convicted of certain serious crimes that require them to serve 85 percent of their crimes to more quickly accrue credits toward early release. She stood behind the order, even after sharp criticism from some district attorneys and legislators, who argue the directive will lead to violent criminals being released early.

After meeting with Obama, Fallin reiterated that one of her policy priorities will be supporting programs that divert nonviolent offenders, especially those with substance abuse problems or mental illness, from prison.

“I told him we’ve been trying to fund more of our mental health and substance abuse services in our state to keep more people out of our correctional facilities, keep our families together, and get them back into our workforce and get them the help that they need,” Fallin said.

Since 1980, when there were fewer than 5,000 inmates in state prisons, Oklahoma’s inmate population has increased more than 500 percent, to its current level of nearly 28,000. The Department of Corrections reports state prisons are currently at 112 percent capacity.

While the Legislature is primarily responsible for the explosive growth in the prison population by passing laws for decades to create new crimes or enhance the penalties for existing ones, there also have been bipartisan efforts in recent years to reverse that trend. Republican House leaders this year declined to grant hearings to dozens of bills that created new felony crimes or toughened penalties, and the GOP-controlled Legislature sent to Fallin a bill that allows judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases.

Even prosecutors have endorsed some of the proposals aimed at curbing the growth, although many district attorneys argue that even nonviolent offenders have to work hard at a life of crime and continue to rack up convictions before ending up in prison.

“What you experience as a prosecutor over and over are people who literally kick the door down to get into prison,” said Chris Ross, district attorney for three counties in east-central Oklahoma who has been a prosecutor for more than 30 years. “You start them off on a deferred sentence and they reoffend. Now they’re on a suspended sentence and they reoffend. What are you going to do with them? You can’t just say: ‘OK, you can go ahead and commit crimes and we’re not going to do anything.’

“When people repeatedly violate the law when they’re on probation, at some point the end result is prison.”

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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