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How to fix Oklahoma’s broken parole system

Incarceration is expensive in Oklahoma. The cost of our overcrowded prisons is projected to skyrocket in the next decade. The Department of Corrections requested $1.5 billion next year to address long-neglected repairs and to build a new prison to keep up with the current rate of inmate growth.

Typically, states mitigate the cost of prison with parole, allowing offenders to serve the last part of their sentence under community supervision if the offender is no longer a threat to public safety. Parole should have two goals: incentivizing good behavior for those currently and formerly incarcerated while easing their re-entry into communities and saving taxpayer money.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s parole system is broken. The number of inmates granted parole decreased 77 percent from 2008 to 2017. Even worse, policies in Oklahoma encourage many inmates to forgo parole and leave them without the support structure available in other states.

Every month, about 600 inmates become parole eligible, but only about 200 apply for it, passing up an opportunity for early release. This is in part because parole in Oklahoma comes with fees that can add up quickly. Unless a parolee’s fees are waived for hardship, anyone on parole in this state must pay $40 per month for DOC supervision in addition to court fines and fees, as well as some additional amount of financial restitution depending on the offense.

In addition, a parolee may have to pay for up to two years of drug tests, a GPS ankle bracelet, a breathalyzer for their vehicle, and any cognitive behavioral therapy or classes which the parole board deems necessary for their release. These financial obstacles are often compounded by the fact that many of those on parole have suspended drivers’ licenses, making attending required meetings and maintaining employment remarkably difficult.

To help more offenders access parole, lawmakers should eliminate the supervision fee and provide more hardship waivers for other costs to those who are unable to pay. Some parole conditions are both necessary and reasonable, but if conditions make employment and paying bills more difficult, it’s hard to see how they promote public safety.

Exacerbating the situation is that many prisoners in Oklahoma view parole as a trap because its terms are so strict. Failing to meet the conditions of probation or parole was among the most common reasons Oklahomans went to prison in 2018. In 2015, roughly a quarter of prison admissions in this state were for technical violations of probation or parole conditions.

“Oklahoma parole is just a gotcha game” for many offenders, according to Kris Steele, Parole Board member and executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “Because they’ve seen how many inmates get parole only to end up back
in prison.”

A landmark parole reform bill, HB 2286, did pass the state Legislature last year. The law creates a new system of release for non-violent offenders called administrative parole, an automatic parole process for certain inmates which should have a huge impact on the prison population in the next several years, though legal questions about the implementation timeline may delay the impact of the law.

HB 2286 also increases the availability of graduated sanctions, so that sending someone back to prison is not the first response to a parole violation. It’s a much-needed step toward a parole system that does what it’s meant to do: equip people coming out of prison with the resources to successfully rejoin the community.

Damion Shade is the criminal justice policy analyst for Oklahoma Policy Institute.

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