It seems logical, at least on superficial analysis, to believe that the way to reduce the rate of crime and the rate of recidivism by released prisoners is to imprison more criminal offenders, and to keep them in prison longer. This “get tough” argument has found traction especially with regard to violent crimes and offenders, such as those accused of murder, rape or serious drug-related offenses. Activity in the Oklahoma state legislature, however, suggests that this way of thinking is being reconsidered.

Two bills — House Bill 1117, and Senate Bill 112 — propose to revisit the “85 percent rule”. This rule refers to the principle that certain violent offenders cannot earn credit for good behavior (the key to being considered for early release) until they have completed at least 85 percent of their prison sentence. The practical effect of the 85 percent rule is that such offenders often end up having to serve all or nearly all of their sentences, because by the time they have accumulated enough good behavior credit they will already have served more than 85 percent of their sentence.

Less violent inmates do not have to wait so long to begin building up good behavior credit under the Earned Credits Program, which can reduce a sentence by up to 44 days for each month of time served depending on the amount of credits earned.

Good behavior credit can be earned in a variety of ways, aside from good behavior itself. Inmates can take advantage of programs to better themselves and to improve their prospects for post-incarceration employment and life in general, such as work programs, vocational training and educational opportunities Other avenues available to earn good behavior credit include taking anger management and family classes.

The use of good behavior credit to secure early release has been touted as being effective in keeping recidivism rates low, although some people have claimed that the real motivation behind early release is hoped-for cost savings by relieving overcrowding: as of last August, for example, it was estimated that about two-thirds of Oklahoma prisons were overcrowded, due to a combination of transferring prisoners from county jails to state prisons and the failure of an effort known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to gain momentum. What is more, examples exist of early-release non-violent inmates being returned to prison after having committed violent crimes.

A counter-argument is that early release can be effective at least in part because statistics suggest that, despite having an incarceration rate two-thirds higher than the 2013 national average, the violent crime rate in Oklahoma was nonetheless one-quarter higher than the national average.

Since March of last year the Oklahoma Corrections Department has already undertaken revisions to the Earned Credits Program to speed up the release of more than 1,500 inmates: these changes have allowed violent offenders to become eligible for lost credits, and doubling the amount of early release credits that some inmates can receive. If made into law, the proposed legislation would expand on the ongoing relaxing of how good behavior credits can be earned.