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March 9, 2012

Oklahoma ACLU: state prison population has doubled since 1989

STILLWATER, Okla. — Two guests spoke to a group of Payne County Democrats Thursday about the growing prison population in Oklahoma and the country.

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a former state representative, quoted statistics from an ACLU newsletter article claiming the national incarceration rate increased 700 percent from 1970 to 2005.

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, he said. Since 1989, the number of people in Oklahoma prisons has doubled, he said. About half of the people in prison are there for non-violent offenses, he said.

The Oklahoma ACLU receives hundreds of civil rights complaints each year, Kiesel said, and many of them come from people in prisons.

Kiesel said House Bill 3052, which was developed from recommendations made in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, doesn’t go far enough to reduce the state’s prison population and fund district attorneys’ offices and police departments.

The bill would increase the amount of time convicts can ask for sentence modifications to two years, but as the bill stands now, prosecutors could veto certain sentence modification requests, Kiesel said.

The bill would also create a grant program for law enforcement through the attorney general’s office. Kiesel said this money should instead go to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Lynn Powell, president of the Oklahoma chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, said prisons should do more to rehabilitate people in prison.

“Today’s inmates are tomorrow’s neighbors,” she said.

Releasing inmates with no support network or job “set(s) them up for failure.”

The most difficult challenge facing people released from prison is finding a place to live, she said.

Powell works with families of incarcerated people to explain how the state legislature and prison system works. She recommended families read the Department of Corrections’ “Guide for Families and Friends of Offenders” to learn more about Oklahoma prisons.

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