Woodward, Okla. — Steele said the reinvestment plan has worked elsewhere, noting Texas tried a similar plan several years ago and was able to close a prison because of the drop in prisoners.
The Oklahoma Legislature continues to consider more and harsher penalties. This week, the Senate approved a bill to criminalize the plotting of a mass attack, such as a school shooting. Another bill would make damaging fences used for agriculture a felony. A proposal passed by the House creates a new felony specifically for assaulting a Department of Human Services worker.
"All of them will pass because no one wants to be viewed as soft on crime," said Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, who has voiced concerns with some of the felony proposals.
"We're adding felonies every year," she said, pointing to private prison interests, which have a stake in being full, as a possible culprit. "We've got to figure out where the happy medium is."
The average prison sentence in Oklahoma has almost doubled in length in the past two decades, according to the Pew Center on the States. Proponents say harsher penalties deter crime and eventually lower prison populations.
But research doesn't show harsher and longer sentences decrease crime, said Todd Clear, a professor of corrections policy and dean of the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice.
"The irony is the number of people in prison has very little to do with the crime rate," Clear said, noting that national crime rates have held steady since the 1970s while incarceration has jumped five-fold.
Steele, the former House Speaker, pointed to Oklahoma's violent crime rates, which have remained steady during the past decade — even with the state's high incarceration rates — while rates in most other states have fallen dramatically.
"The question is, what are we doing to address this concern if not justice reinvestment?" he said. "What's the plan?"