Today, our state ranks second in the country in terms of its prison rate, and is on pace to become number one. Yet, 75% of those sent to prison in Oklahoma are for non-violent offenses. By reforming the system, Oklahoma can cut prison costs, and use those savings to focus more intensely on violent criminals. We can also fund programs that help victims and reduce recidivism. Over the last decade, many conservative, tough on crimes states such as Texas, Georgia and South Carolina have taken similar steps and their records speak for themselves. By reforming the prison system, Oklahoma can cut spending while making us safer.
The failure of our justice system is also affecting Sooner families. Oklahoma incarcerates more women than any other state and the female prison population is expected to jump by 60%. For those who are married, being sent to prison means a 50% increase in the likelihood of getting divorced. More importantly, four out of five incarcerated women also have school-aged children. Given that most of the women behind bars are there for non-violent crimes, we should be fostering a culture that encourages marriage and family values, not adding burdens to them.
Finally, the cost of our criminal justice system is weighing heavily on family pocketbooks. Obviously, prison beds are expensive. With prisons already at capacity, the state will have to spend $1.9 billion in the next 10 years to build and operate new facilities. If the State Legislature fails to take action this week, Oklahoma will have to spend $800 million dollars next year for new prisons. That means new taxes. Rather than waste tax dollars locking up people who aren’t a threat, let’s reserve those prison beds for those who pose a real threat to our safety.
I understand that you are considering a package of reforms of the criminal justice system supported by Governor Fallin, Senator Greg Treat and Representative Terry O’Donnell. As you consider these reforms, I hope you will keep in mind the affect on Oklahoma’s taxpayers, our families, and our citizens.