At Channel 5 in the 1980s, I interviewed Roger Dale Stafford, one of Oklahoma’s most notorious serial killers. Like almost everyone on death row, Roger proclaimed his innocence until his execution. Years later, I was asked about the death sentence and my response was that people like Roger could go to heaven or go to hell, but they shouldn’t stay in Big Mac! Perhaps a little too cavalier, but across the nation today, death row is growing. I still believe Stafford, and others who have committed crimes like him, deserve the death sentence.
For lesser crimes, Oklahoma, like many states, adheres to the “85 percent” rule that mandates a person found guilty of certain crimes, including murder, battery and robbery with a deadly weapon, child pornography and aggravated drug trafficking, must serve 85 percent of the sentence before they can even be eligible for parole. The cost of housing an inmate can exceed $20,000 per year ” this translates into an enormous taxpayer expense for keeping these individuals behind bars.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has about 25,000 prisoners, with an average criminal sentence (excluding those who fall under the 85 percent rule) of 6.4 years, and the average prisoner serves about 50 percent of their sentence before being paroled.
There are a few schools of thought on how or if prisons work. I have always questioned why we call it “corrections,” when by most accounts it doesn’t seem to correct the problem people are generally arrested for. Nearly 40 percent of Oklahoma’s inmates are there for drug-related crimes. It’s common for these individuals to have received either consecutive or concurrent sentences ” meaning parole could be a long way off.
Some argue the length of time acts as a deterrent to future recidivism, but this may also lead to low-risk offenders becoming bigger threats the longer they are incarcerated. Not surprisingly, the really bad guys teach the not so bad guys to be “badder.” Another viewpoint says (not very convincingly) the unpleasant nature of prison and stigma of being an ex-con will deter people from additional criminal behavior. Finally, there are those who say the impact of prison is minimal ” but, I would argue, not to the guy in prison.
The 85 percent rule is great at keeping some of the bad guys locked up, but it may also keep some of the not so bad guys in so long they become bad. Death row appeals can take years, if not decades. At the high cost per year to keep them locked up, expediting appeals makes sense. At the same time, revisiting some of the mandatory sentencing might be worth reviewing if for no other reason than the fact the cost of maintaining our prison systems in Oklahoma and nationally is becoming astronomical. Many judges and lawyers agree ” mandatory sentencing isn’t always the best answer.
We’ll never be able to prevent crime, and it doesn’t appear the system is very “correctional.” For some, prison is three meals a day, a free education and health care. We can all agree on one thing: Since death sentences are being used less and the 85 percent rule is keeping more criminals behind bars longer, our prison population is going to continue to grow. No one seems to want a prison in their backyard or pay the costs of operating them.
We’re spending several hundred million dollars a year not correcting. So the question is, what should we be doing?
Orza is dean of the Meinders School of Business at Oklahoma City University. Michael Cooper, a third-year OCU law student, provided research for this commentary.