If Prison Makes Us Safer, why is Oklahoma’s Crime Rate so High?

Oklahoma has the unfortunate history of having been number one in incarceration in the world for the last generation.

(https://www.prisonpolicy.org/profiles/OK.html#:~:text=Oklahoma%20has%20an%20incarceration%20rate,incarcerated%20in%20Oklahoma%20and%20why. )

Recent criminal justice reforms – especially passage of State Questions 780 & 781 in 2016 that turned drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors – allowed us to fall from the number one spot to the third highest incarceration rate in the nation. Even though we didn’t fall much in the rankings, we did decrease our overall incarceration rate by over 5,000 people.

(https://oklahomawatch.org/2022/11/01/stitt-cut-oklahomas-prison-population-sentencing-alternatives-still-unfunded/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CWe’ve%20closed%20two%20private,13%20interview. )

Some of that decline was due to COVID when prisons and jails were encouraged to incarcerate only the highest risk offenders, and the courts slowed to a snail’s pace.

This year we have seen a slight increase in incarceration again as our processes return to normal post-COVID and efforts to push ahead with other meaningful criminal justice reform efforts have stalled.

Our stats in incarceration are certainly something to think about from a policy perspective. The underlying reason to incarcerate an individual is for punishment. But the secondary reason is to keep the public safe.

We supposedly incarcerate people to keep our citizens safe from the harm that person could continue to inflict. Public safety is something everyone in the law enforcement and criminal justice professions espouses as the main reason to use incarceration.

Public safety is of the utmost importance, as it incentivizes businesses, families, and industries to make an area home. Public safety allows people to feel at ease in their communities and be assured that crime is being held as low as it can through prevention and rehabilitation.

So, it stands to reason, under these assumptions, that high incarceration rates would lead to an especially safe community with low crime.

When looking at Oklahoma these assumptions prove to be incorrect.

Currently, Oklahoma is #1 in the nation for the incidence of domestic violence.

(https://okcfox.com/news/local/statistics-in-oklahoma-are-pretty-grim-oklahoma-ranks-1st-in-domestic-violence-lawmakers-are-taking-action )

Our homicide rate is 9 per 100,000 while New York is 4.7 and California is 6.1.

(https://okcfox.com/news/local/statistics-in-oklahoma-are-pretty-grim-oklahoma-ranks-1st-in-domestic-violence-lawmakers-are-taking-action )

California’s incarceration rate is 549 per 100,000 and New York’s is 376. This puts them at the 49th highest and 38th highest incarceration rate in the world, respectively. Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is currently the 3rd highest in the world –- 993 per 100,000 -– behind Louisiana and Mississippi.

(https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2021.html?gclid=CjwKCAiAu9yqBhBmEiwAHTx5p6A177A_3Jwhv_G7ZGVk5lVdg2JzQnX5h4oKwksPIm7m_OBExrerBBoCho0QAvD_BwE )

When it comes to violent crime, Oklahoma had 18,255 incidents in 2020, which per 100,000 people, is a violent crime rate of 458.6. California had a rate of 442. In New York state it was far lower with a rate of 363.8.

When looking at our two largest cities, Tulsa is the 8th most dangerous city in the nation, and Oklahoma City is the 20th according to US News and World Report.

As a whole, Oklahoma has a higher crime rate compared to other states in the nation. In fact, USA Today just ranked Oklahoma #12 in its list of states with the most violent crimes per capita.

(https://realestate.usnews.com/places/rankings/most-dangerous-places )

Not only are we higher across the board for crime, our murder solve rates are nationally at a historic low.

(https://www.npr.org/2023/04/29/1172775448/people-murder-unsolved-killings-record-high )

All of these data points beg the question — o tough-on-crime policies keep a state safer?

(https://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/economics_of_incarceration/ )

We would hope high incarceration —- the most expensive public safety intervention -— would at least deliver a return on that investment through public safety. A compilation of research from the last three decades nationally argues that not only does mass incarceration have no net-positive impact on public safety, it can actually make communities less safe. [1]

The Vera Institute of Justice published a piece called The Prison Paradox that details this phenomenon. From the key findings: “Despite two decades of declining crime rates and a decade of efforts to reduce mass incarceration, some policymakers continue to call for tougher sentences and greater use of incarceration to reduce crime. It may seem intuitive that increasing incarceration would further reduce crime: incarceration not only prevents future crimes by taking people who commit crime “out of circulation” (incapacitation), but it also may dissuade people from committing future crimes out of fear of punishment (deterrence). In reality, however, increasing incarceration rates has a minimal impact on reducing crime and entails significant costs: Increases in incarceration rates have a small impact on crime rates and each additional increase in incarceration rates has a smaller impact on crime rates than previous increases. Any crime reduction benefits of incarceration are limited to property crime. Research consistently shows that higher incarceration rates are not associated with lower violent crime rates.”

(https://www.vera.org/downloads/publications/for-the-record-prison-paradox_02.pdf )

So we are left with a pressing challenge – how can Oklahoma safely decarcerate while also reducing crime? The answer lies in resources and prevention. Oklahoma currently also has the 8th highest poverty rate in the nation.

(https://www.kosu.org/local-news/2023-09-18/oklahomas-poverty-rate-is-among-the-highest-in-the-country )

Our colleagues at Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform just released research that indicates some of Oklahoma’s “hot spots” as they relate to high crime and poverty.

(https://drive.google.com/file/d/16xowW1uuHOTj4u5CJtZwqcNBpp6RkN7a/view )

Often, poverty drives crime in predictable ways.

Overcoming these challenges is not impossible. The following are four strategies for de-carcerating while also keeping crime low in Oklahoma:

Sentencing Reform

Real, impactful sentencing reform would modernize and right-size Oklahoma’s justice system within the next decade, and keep Oklahomans safe. The Oklahoma legislature has entertained comprehensive sentencing reform the last three legislative sessions and ultimately the reform always hits a snag and fails to progress into law. Lawmakers should take this opportunity to upgrade our criminal code and move it into the 21st Century. Oklahoma’s sentences are much longer than surrounding states, and we still have sentencing enhancements that can lengthen most criminal sentences up to LIFE. Enacting a sentencing grid, and grouping like crimes together with uniform ranges is a research-backed reform that moves our criminal code from archaic, emotionally driven sentencing to modern, evidence based ranges.

(http://www.oklegislature.gov/BillInfo.aspx?Bill=hb1792&Session=2300 )

Trauma Informed Practices in Justice System

Oklahomans historically are some of the most traumatized people in the nation. We have the highest ACE scores, and we rank high for our people being in “despair.” However, none of this trauma is accounted for in the criminal justice system. In other countries and other states, as well as in the federal sentencing system, we account for people’s trauma when considering their punishment. Even if folks are guilty of a crime, the trauma they have sustained helps to explain–not excuse–their conduct. The judicial system should be allowed and required to consider past trauma such as abuse, trafficking, and coercive control when making sentencing decisions. Bills like last session’s House Bill 1639 are a trend in the right direction towards a trauma informed justice system. The Oklahoma legislature should work to pass the policy advanced by H.B.1639 with retroactivity included in the 2024 session.

(https://www.zippia.com/advice/states-with-the-most-despair/ )

Targeted Prevention in High Crime Areas

Oklahoma’s highest poverty, highest crime areas (ranked in order) are: Lawton, Hugo, Muskogee, Seminole, El Reno, and Shawnee. If the state could deploy additional public safety prevention resources, trauma recovery centers, and victims’ support services to these areas as a strategic response, we could stem the bleeding on some of Oklahoma’s highest need communities. Added resources strategically deployed in these areas will reduce violent crimes, protect Oklahomans, and reduce intentional homicides–one of the system’s largest areas resource allocation.

Wraparound re-entry services, including housing, employment, ID services and education.

While we are working to de-carcerate, it is imperative that we support Oklahomans returning home from periods of incarceration. While treating these needs will not inherently deliver a more just system–because these folks have already completed long sentences–giving them what they need to remain healthy, contributing members of society keeps them from falling into recidivism. Making reentry harder for returning Oklahomans is simply an extension of their punishment, even though they have completed their sentence. Statewide reentry support should be provided for all areas of life, including but not limited to: emergency housing, higher education, documentation such as IDs and provisional drivers’ licenses, and employment training.

It is way past time for Oklahoma to get smart on crime. We can use modern technology, data, research, and proven interventions to do it.


[1] James F. Austin and Tony Fabelo, The Diminishing Returns of Increased Incarceration (2004).

[2] Beaman JW, Miner CJ, Bolinger C. Quantifying Adverse Childhood Experiences in Oklahoma With the Oklahoma Adversity Surveillance Index System (OASIS): Development and Cross-Sectional Study. JMIR Public Health Surveill. 2023 Aug 22;9:e45891. doi: 10.2196/45891. PMID: 37467063; PMCID: PMC10481206.

NOTES: Patrick B. McGuigan prepared this story for posting, with the author’s permission. Pat was co-editor of Crime and Punishment in Modern America. Published during the Reagan presidency, the book was a compilation of conservative and libertarian proposals for alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes.


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