The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

October 20, 2013

Lifers on the rise in Oklahoma

More Oklahoma inmates are being sentenced to life in prison, outpacing national growth over the past several years, according to a report issued by the Sentencing Project.

About one in 10 of Oklahoma’s roughly 26,700 inmates is serving a life sentence, in line with national rates. But since 2008, the number of inmates serving life sentences in Oklahoma has grown by nearly 15 percent, from 2,191 to 2,515 in 2012. Nationally, the number has grown about 12 percent during the same period.

Ashley Nellis, a researcher with the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for alternatives to prison, co-authored the report and cites harsh sentencing laws and tough-on-crime approaches for the increases in life sentences in Oklahoma and across the country during the past few decades.

“It’s the bad ideas of the 1990s that are starting to catch up with us,” she said.

Locking up an increasing number of people for life further compounds overcrowding problems at prisons across the country and proves costly for budget-crunched states, Nellis said.

Nevertheless, in discussions about prison reform, Nellis said reforming life sentencing laws and policies “are sort of left out of the conversation.”

In the report, released in September, Oklahoma also is cited as one of the states with a high percentage of drug offenders serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, at 6.4 percent. Nationally, 2 percent of the inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole are drug offenders, according to the report.

Defenders of Oklahoma’s incarceration rate say the public believes in being tough on crime and the number of inmates in the prison system is likely to keep increasing.

Here is how life sentences in Oklahoma, including those with and without the possibility of parole, break down by crime:

  • Murder/manslaughter: 1,935
  • Sexual assault: 248
  • Assault/robbery/kidnapping: 137
  • Drug offense: 106
  • Property offense: 10
  • Other: 79

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on important public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to

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