- Associated Press - Thursday, February 2, 2017

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Shortening criminal penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, offering parole to older inmates and allowing some prisoners a chance to expunge their records would help whittle Oklahoma’s chronically overcrowded prison system and save the state almost $2 billion, a criminal justice task force found Thursday.

The recommendations issued in the 39-page Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force report come as corrections officials face the prospect of either building two more prisons and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to operate them or adopting new ways of thinking about how the state punishes its criminals.

Oklahoma has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country and the highest imprisonment rate for women.

In December, the corrections department said it was supervising the highest number of prisoners in its 49-year history, overseeing 61,012 people. That includes 26,619 in state and private prisons or halfway houses and 32,564 who are supervised by GPS monitors, community supervision or by probation and parole officers.

Nearly 1,900 more were in county jails awaiting space in prison.

“We’re housing prisoners in gymnasiums and other spaces that could be used for programs,” Gov. Mary Fallin said Thursday. Fallin directed the task force in August to compile the report. “We know statistically that without a change in course of our direction … that our prison population is projected to grow 25 percent over the next 10 years, causing us to invest in at least two new prisons.”

Oklahoma voters already signaled a willingness to overhaul the state’s sentencing laws in November when they approved two state questions aimed at justice reform.

State Question 780, which reclassifies drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 to misdemeanors, passed with more than 58 percent of the vote. A companion measure that would reinvest any savings into substance abuse and mental health treatment, State Question 781, was approved with more than 56 percent of the vote.

The task force report estimated that if its recommendations are implemented, they would reduce the prison population by nearly 9,300 beds and avoid $1.9 billion in costs through 2026.

The report proposed modifying drug sentences based on different classifications, adjusting penalties for possession with intent to distribute, distribution, manufacture and other related crimes. It would also create tiered sentencing for drug trafficking to target major drug dealers.

Older and chronically ill inmates would also benefit. The task force recommended a parole system that allows prisoners who have aged out of criminal behavior to become eligible for parole at 50 after serving 10 years - excluding felony sex offenses, death and life without parole sentences.

The overhaul would also allow offenders to expunge their records of nonviolent convictions after seven years without a new conviction and records of violent convictions after 10 years on the same condition.

“Oklahoma spends too much money without positive outcomes locking up low-level, nonviolent people,” said task force member Roy Williams, the president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. “Our bloated prison population is costing our state millions, burdening taxpayers and failing to rehabilitate offenders and make them productive members of society who contribute to the economy.”


Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.

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