Oklahoma’s Life-Sentenced Population Rising Faster than National Trends
Oklahoma has increased its life-sentenced population steadily over the past 20 years to the point where one in eight prisoners is now serving life.
Related to: State Advocacy, Sentencing Reform
Oklahoma has increased its life-sentenced population steadily over the past 20 years to the point where one in eight prisoners is now serving life. To stem the continued rise in imprisonment (the state ranks second in the country in terms of incarceration rates) and its associated costs, lawmakers have passed bills designed to reduce the number of people sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent drug crimes. These are promising approaches but the state will need to pursue even bolder reforms to make a noticeable difference in the correctional population. The increased prevalence of life sentences stands at odds with attempts to scale back overcrowded prisons.
Lengthy imprisonment is a costly investment and Oklahoma’s corrections costs are rising in large part due to the growing population of elderly prisoners in the state. Between fiscal year 2006 and fiscal year 2015, the state experienced a 25 percent rise in the cost of health care for prisoners.1
This briefing paper is designed to inform policy discussions on long-term incarceration. It begins with an examination of trends in life sentences over time, followed by an assessment of the diminishing returns of life sentences for public safety and a review of factors that help to explain the expansion of life sentences in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections (2016). Annual Report, 2015. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Department of Corrections.