Oklahoma has one of nation's lowest rates of prisoners returning to jail

Sheila Devereux walks through a gate opened by Unit Manager Shola Shopeyin at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in McLoud, Okla. Devereux was sentenced to life in prison without parole after her third felony drug conviction. Devereux's case was handled by two of the Tulsa police officers who are currently under investigation for police corruption. ADAM WISNESKI/Tulsa World

Oklahoma has one of the lowest rates of prisoners returning to jail, according to a national study released this week.

But officials say the state's lower recidivism rate reflects the fact that more low-risk, nonviolent offenders - inmates who aren't as likely to reoffend - are sent to prison in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma was one of only five states with a recidivism rate under 30 percent - about 24 percent for 1999 releases, and 26 percent for 2004 releases.

The first-ever state-by-state survey of recidivism rates by the Pew Center on the States tracked offenders released in 1999 and 2004 for three years after their release.

The national recidivism rate shows more than four in 10 offenders returned to state prison within three years of their release, according to the study.

Nationwide, nearly 43 percent of prisoners released in 2004, and 45 percent of those released in 1999, were reincarcerated within three years, either for a new crime or violating terms of their supervised release, according to the study. Six states - Alaska, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Vermont - reported that more than half of released offenders returned to state custody within three years in 2004-07.

While national figures may be discouraging, several states have made progress in reducing recidivism through a variety of evidence-based strategies, the study's directors say. The report argues that reducing recidivism nationally by 10 percent could save states more than $635 million combined in averted prison costs in one year alone.

States measure recidivism differently, so the survey's authors strived to find a uniform definition within numbers supplied by each state's Department of Corrections. Pew officials caution against making state-by-state comparisons because of differences in the way states measure recidivism, in addition to varying sentencing and supervision requirements.

Oklahoma's prison population includes many low-risk, nonviolent offenders who possibly wouldn't be headed to jail in other states.

"A lot of people who might be put on probation or diverted into an alternative program in another state wind up going to prison in Oklahoma," said Michael Connelly, administrator of evaluation and analysis for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, in the study. "These lower-level folks aren't as likely to recidivate, so it benefits our overall numbers and makes us look like we're doing an even better job than we're doing."

A recent report by the Northpointe Institute for Public Management suggested that Oklahoma could save as much as $80 million per year through parole reforms. Only about 11 percent of Oklahoma inmates eligible for parole get approved for release, contributing to crowded prisons and costing taxpayers more money, according to the study.

More states are focusing on strategies to drive incarceration rates down and prevent inmates from reoffending, said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States.

"We know so much more today than we did 30 years ago when prisons became our weapon of choice in the fight against crime, in how to stop the revolving door of recidivism," he said.

The Pew study cites examples of reforms in recent years in Michigan, Missouri and Oregon that have helped focus taxpayer dollars on spending that produces better outcomes instead of simply building more prisons.

DOC spokesman Jerry Massie said the department has examined successful, evidence-based programs in the U.S. to model its changes after in recent years.

"We look around the country for best practices," he said. "Obviously, you want to be as efficient and effective as you can be."

Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477

cary.aspinwall@tulsaworld.com SUBHEAD: The recidivism rate is due to more low-risk offenders, a study says.

Original Print Headline: State has low rate of returning prisoners

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