OKLAHOMA CITY - When Harry Coates campaigned for the Oklahoma state Senate in 2002, he had one approach to crime: "Lock 'em up and throw away the key."
Now, Coates is looking for that key. He and other tough-on-crime lawmakers across the country, faced with steep budget shortfalls, are searching anxiously for ways to let inmates out of prison faster and keep more offenders on the street.
Oklahoma's preferred answer for crime has collided head-on with a budget deficit estimated at $600 million, and prison costs that have increased more than 30 percent in the last decade. For years, lawmakers have pushed each other to lengthen prison sentences and increase the number of criminals behind bars. Not now: This week, new Republican Speaker of the House Kris Steele is expected to unveil a package of proposals that would divert thousands of nonviolent lawbreakers from the prison system and ramp up paroles.
Similar crash prison reductions are going on from coast to coast. Michigan has shuttered 20 correctional facilities and slashed spending by nearly 7 percent. South Carolina expects to reduce its inmate numbers by 8 percent by putting drug dealers, burglars and hot check writers into community programs instead of behind bars. Nationwide, the number of state inmates actually decreased last year for the first time in nearly 40 years.
"There has been a dramatic shift," said Adam Gelb, a policy specialist with the Pew Center on the States in Washington, D.C.. "The old question was simply, how do I demonstrate that I'm tough on crime?" Now, it's "a much better question: How do I get taxpayers a better public safety return on their corrections dollars?"
Other states are trying alternatives to prison time. But in no state is the philosophical U-turn more abrupt than in Oklahoma, where last year the Legislature was barreling in the opposite direction. Lawmakers introduced 26 bills creating new felony crimes and 19 increasing penalties in 2010, even as the Department of Corrections was forcing guards and other workers to take a furlough day each month to cut costs caused by rising populations.
Oklahoma's prison population has grown from 22,600 in 2000 to nearly 26,000 now, and the budget from $366 million to $483 million last year. Unless the Legislature provides $9 million in emergency funding this year, prison officials say guards will have to take three furlough days a month beginning in March, straining the inmate-to-guard ratios that prison officials say are already the most dangerous they've been in decades.
Accepting that the lock-'em-up days are finally over has been chastening for some lawmakers, especially conservatives.
"Truthfully, it's popular to be tough on crime," said Coates, a construction company owner from Seminole. "But when I saw what we were spending on corrections and who was going into our adult prisons and for what reasons . you figure out it's not exactly like you thought," he said.
Unlike previous years, Republican leaders in Oklahoma now own the problem. The midterm elections gave the GOP the governor's office for the first time in eight years and increased majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
"I have a little heartburn about reducing penalties," said Rep. Don Armes, a Republican from rural southwestern Oklahoma. But "how do I balance that with being able to pay for it?"
Steele recently joined a delegation of lawmakers, judges and legislative staffers who visited Texas to see how that state has reduced its prison costs, trusting that Texans would do it without coddling lawbreakers.
"I believe there ought to be consequences for people who break the law, but there ought to be appropriate consequences." said Steele, a minister from Shawnee.
Texas, home of the sprawling red brick complex at Huntsville that has been a symbol of tough justice, changed course several years ago after being told it would need to accommodate 17,000 new inmates otherwise. Rather than sending all lawbreakers directly to prison, the Lone Star State beefed up funding for drug treatment and started putting more drug offenders, hot check writers and petty thieves on probation. It also is giving more chances to parolees who previously were returned to prison for technical violations, like missing required meetings or falling behind on fines and fees.
Now, more Texas criminals are on probation, fewer are in prison, and the system is actually under capacity for the first time in years, said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
"Things have changed drastically in Texas," Yanez-Correa said. "And nobody suffered here in terms of political backlash."
In Oklahoma, Steele helped implement a pilot program last year to divert nonviolent female offenders with substance abuse problems into treatment instead of prison, and said he hopes to expand that program this year. Oklahoma currently is the only state in the nation in which the governor must sign every parole, and Steele said he wants to limit the governor's role in the process to only violent crimes. He also wants to expand eligibility for community sentencing and look at reducing mandatory minimum sentences for low-risk, nonviolent offenses.
The theory behind this approach is supported by research that shows merely incarcerating young, first-time criminals does little to change their behavior.
Department of Corrections officials seem optimistic that new measures will be approved because they have run out of other ways to save money. "We've already cut everything internally we could possibly cut," said DOC director Justin Jones. Mess halls, shops, training rooms and storage units have been filled with bunks to accommodate inmates. Sex offender treatment was ended. Visitation and activities requiring guard supervision was cut when staff levels dropped to 70 percent of authorized levels.
Experts on national sentencing expect almost every state to adopt the new approach sooner or later - perhaps most this year because of the state fiscal crisis. The Pew Center is now working with policymakers in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, Texas and Washington about adjusting sentencing policies. Nationally, states spend an estimated $50 billion each year in locking up criminals - four times the amount spent two decades ago and second only to Medicaid spending - according to the Pew Center. A study released by the group last year shows the amount states spent locking up inmates grew nearly 350 percent from $11 billion in 1987 to $48 billion in 2008.
"I got pushback," said Texas Republican Sen. John Whitmire, who authored a several reform measures. "But you've got to believe in your product, and that is in fact tough on crime. The toughest, most conservative crime package is one that lowers recidivism."