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On top of the world

Oklahoma should stop accepting our highest-in-the-world incarceration rate

We knew the day would come when Oklahoma surpassed Louisiana as the highest-incarcerating state in the highest-incarcerating country in the world. As it turns out, Oklahoma has had the highest incarceration rate in the world since the end of 2016; we just didn’t know it because federal statistics are released on a year-long lag.

Oklahoma incarcerates about 1,079 per 100,000 of our residents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative study that’s received attention recently. These numbers put Oklahoma over 50 percent higher than the national incarceration rate. And we’re far out of step with the rest of a country that is already far out of step with the rest of the world. Our incarceration rate, for example, is nearly 10 times higher than that of Canada.

With this milestone, Oklahomans should be asking our officials, our neighbors, and ourselves: Why is our current level of incarceration appropriate here when it’s not needed literally anywhere else in the world?

With incarceration this common, it seems that just about every Oklahoman should have several family members, friends, or acquaintances in jail or prison, but we know that the burden of the justice system falls much more heavily on low-income communities and communities of color.

For black Oklahomans, the incarceration rate was five times higher than for white Oklahomans. This mass incarceration of black Oklahomans—especially black men—is so widespread that it warps our sense of reality. The communities impacted most heavily by incarceration have thousands of men of prime working age, who could be earning an income and contributing to their families and communities, but are instead locked up for years and released with badly diminished work and life prospects.

This is an enormous loss to all of us, even those who don’t know anyone who is incarcerated. We’ll never know what these people might have contributed to our state—economically, creatively, in schools, in jobs, in families—because we’ve essentially thrown them away.

Even broadly popular reforms have brought alarmist criticism from elected law enforcement officials and legislators. While voters approved SQ 780 by large margins to change drug possession and minor thefts to misdemeanors, district attorneys have maintained their opposition.

“It is giving the drug dealing culture exactly what they want. They’re going to feel emboldened if all they have to worry about is a misdemeanor crime,” warned Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.

It’s much harder to accept that argument if we step back and look at where our prison-addicted justice system has left us. If incarceration keeps us safer, we should expect that the highest incarceration rate in the world should bring with it the safest, most prosperous communities in the world. Instead, we have above-average levels of crime, devastated communities, and stubbornly high rates of poverty.

Are Oklahomans more dangerous, more prone to addiction, more given to stealing from our neighbors than the rest of the world? We must challenge everyone who opposes meaningful criminal justice reform to answer those questions in a serious way.

Doing so will elevate a key truth: The real radicals in the reform debate are those who believe that what has worked to reduce crime and incarceration elsewhere would lead to chaos in Oklahoma. This isn’t just wrong; it’s a disturbing idea that reveals the lowest imaginable opinion of the people of our state.

Ryan Gentzler is a policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute (okpolicy.org).