A U.S. Department of Education report released this month shows that states, including Oklahoma, have been increasing funding for our horribly overcrowded prisons at a much higher rate than funding for K-12 and higher education.
Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate & the highest female incarceration rate in the US. pic.twitter.com/dyKg39vp0f
— OK Justice Reform (@OKJusticeReform) February 19, 2016
The numbers viewed at both the overall national and individual state level are simply not sustainable. The report, using a nuanced and important comparative frame, absolutely shows the country and Oklahoma desperately need corrections reform. We need to shift from an emphasis on funding for incarceration to an emphasis on funding for education.
The report also shows that in Oklahoma, which has long had the highest incarceration rate for women on a per capita basis, had a whopping 272 percent change from 1979 to 2013 between more spending on prisons and jails than on more spending on education. The number of people incarcerated in local and state prisons and jails grew in Oklahoma since 1979 by 485 percent, according to the report, which also noted that the state’s population only grew by 34 percent during that time. The state now has the second highest incarceration rate in the country, according to OK Justice Reform. Why? Is it because of our dismal funding for education? That makes sense.
The report notes:
Over the past three decades, state and local government expenditures on prisons and jails have increased at a much faster pace than state and local spending on elementary and secondary education and postsecondary education. All too often, children growing up in poor communities not only do poorly in school but also are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated during their teen-age and young adult years.
Here’s the report. It’s worth going through it if for nothing else than its shock value. Local media outlets, when the report was first issued, made a big deal out of the fact that Oklahoma’s incarceration rate grew 14 times faster than the state’s adult populations since 1979-1980, but that headline grabber doesn’t really do the report justice in terms of its scope.
That scope is that, overall, in Oklahoma and elsewhere our society is making a huge, fatal mistake in investing in jails and prisons rather than in school children, college students and instructors. It should be obvious to even diehard law-and-order Republicans that such a growing discrepancy between funding priorities will only further continue to replicate itself. Studies have shown, and it just makes common sense, that an uneducated or poorly educated populace with low incomes and unhealthy lifestyles will commit more crimes than an educated society with higher incomes and healthier lifestyles.
— Alex Cameron (@AlexDCameron) July 12, 2016
The time period covered by the report corresponds with the conservative “tough-on-crime” surge that really took hold in the late President Ronald Reagan era. This era and later eras gave us automatic sentencing in certain situations, “three strikes” law and draconian prison terms, especially for drug crimes. The so-called “war on drugs,” started by the late President Richard Nixon, who served before the time period used for the report, has done nothing but drain public education systems of money while drugs remain readily available on our streets. It’s a system weighted heavily against people of color, according the report, which notes:
Incarceration in the U.S. occurs disproportionately among people of color. Even for offenses for which there are few differences by race or ethnicity in the likelihood of committing a crime, individuals of color — black youth in particular — are more likely than white individuals to be arrested and receive longer sentences for the same offenses…
Reagan and Nixon, of course, were Republicans, and make no mistake this IS a partisan issue. Even the current Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, some 36 years later, is running on a law-and-order platform, which would lead to even more incarceration. It’s a hybrid of what we might call American totalitarianism, and Oklahoma is a leader among states in this regard with its high per capita incarceration rate.
The obvious short-term pragmatic answers are to eliminate prison sentences for simple drug possession crimes, implement the overall legalization of marijuana in the country, the establishment of significantly more treatment facilities for people addicted to hard drugs, and more courts that deal exclusively with minor to moderate drug crimes. Judges should also be given more leeway in setting sentences, especially for non-violent crimes. We need to emphasize rehabilitation for many inmates rather than just punishment. These proposals and others have been around for years now here in Oklahoma and in other states.
But the most important overall answer, as the report suggests, is to adequately fund our education systems, something Oklahoma has failed to do for years. This will help keep people OUT of prison and the criminal judicial system. Yet just last session, for example, the state legislature voted to cut funding to higher education by nearly 16 percent, a staggering amount. K-12 education in Oklahoma has faced cuts for literally years now. Meanwhile, our incarceration rate continues to rise and so has the cost. It’s money misspent.