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Point of view: Oklahoma's parole merry-go-round

Ronald Fraser
Ronald Fraser

State-run parole and probation programs are designed to keep persons convicted of crimes, including a large number of nonviolent crimes, out of prison. But in Oklahoma, according to a recent Council of State Governments study, “On any given day 3,004 people (or 11% of the entire Oklahoma prison population) are behind bars as a result of a probation or parole violation, at an annual cost to the state of $51 million.”

Parole and probation are court-ordered, nonprison sentences that give offenders a chance to rebuild their lives in a community setting. Not a get-out-of-jail-free-card, each offender agrees to follow a strictly supervised list of conditions that commonly includes mandatory drug testing, keeping regular parole officer visits, paying fines and restitution, holding a job and drug rehab and anger management classes.

More restrictive conditions may include searches, prior approval to open a checking account, travel restrictions, electronic monitoring, curfews and off-limit establishments.

Each year about one-quarter of all persons under community supervision successfully complete the terms of their parole and probation and are released. What about the others, many of whom struggle with a mental illness or addiction, low education attainment, poor employment skills and their inability to pay for drug testing or administrative and electronic monitoring fees?

For them, repeated violations of even relatively minor rules can lead to a disciplinary hearing, additional restrictions or a ride on the probation-and-parole-to-prison merry-go-round. In fact, the CSG report found that 24% of all persons admitted to Oklahoma prisons in 2017 were placed behind bars for parole or probation violations, including conviction for new offenses.

But sooner or later these back-to-prison inmates will return on parole with a new set of supervised restrictions to deal with.

The size of Oklahoma’s merry-go-round is staggering. For the years 2014-2017, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, prison admissions totaled 38,835. During this four-year period it is likely that as many as 4,000 men and women (11%) were returned to prison not for breaking any law but for violating their parole and probation rules.

If Oklahoma’s parole and probation programs had worked as intended during that time, thousands of offenders would not have been locked behind bars but would have remained under community supervision — where they could work on putting their lives back together. That would have dramatically lowered the state’s prison population and saved Oklahoma taxpayers about $17,000 a year for each inmate remaining out of prison. How might this happen?

A 2018 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that one in 55 adults nationally — and one of every 83 Oklahoma adults — is on probation or parole. The report also found that many states are already working to strengthen the effectiveness of their probation and parole programs.

“Policymakers across the nation,” the authors write, “are adopting reforms, such as shorter supervision terms and earned compliance credits, and to prioritize supervision and treatment resources for higher-risk individuals while removing lower-risk people from supervision caseloads.”

In practice this requires that states, “Fundamentally change the purpose of supervision from punishing failure to promoting success. The goal should be to help people repair the harm they have caused and become self-sufficient, law-abiding citizens, rather than simply enforcing rules set by courts and parole boards, catching violators and imposing penalties, including incarceration.”

As these reforms are put into practice, prison populations will go down, state taxes will go down and, best of all, thousands of Oklahomans will stand a better chance of putting prison life behind them for good.

Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington, D.C.--based civil liberties organization. Write him at: