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March 15, 2016

Interesting account of effort to take sentencing reform directly to voters in Oklahoma

This article from The Frontier provides an interesting account of sentencing reform efforts in Oklahoma and why supporters of reform are turning to direct democracy to move forward.  The piece is headlined "After several stalled attempts, Oklahoma group taking prison reforms to vote of the people," and here are excerpts:

Kris Steele stepped up to the microphone in a packed room at Tulsa’s Women in Recovery office and declared this time, in 2016, Oklahoma was going to break through the “political gridlock” by taking criminal justice reform to a vote of the people....

For more than five years, Steele, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, has been talking about the importance of criminal justice reform for Oklahoma’s fiscal bottom line, its citizens and children.  Now, facing a $1.3 billion budget crisis and prisons packed above 120 percent of capacity, it appears Oklahoma is finally ready to listen.

Steele, along with a bipartisan coalition of state power players, is hoping Oklahoma voters will accomplish what elected officials did not in several prior attempts: reducing the state’s staggering prison population.  They hope to redirect some of the savings toward addressing root causes of crime, shifting the state toward a corrections system that focuses on rehabilitation, not solely punishment.

As chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, Steele is leading efforts to collect more than 65,000 petition signatures that would allow two state questions to be added to November’s ballot.  State question 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, such as drug possession and smaller property crimes. The idea is that reclassification would reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and trigger cost savings, badly needed in a state facing a budget crisis where leaders are considering trimming school days to make ends meet.

State question 781 would then invest those prison cost savings in programs designed to address the root causes of crime — including addiction, mental health issues and poverty — and programs that provide job training and education to offenders as they leave prison....

Other states, including Texas and North Carolina, have used their own Justice Reinvestment Initiatives to realize significant savings on corrections spending.  North Carolina’s reforms, passed in 2011, have helped the state close nine prisons and officials expect to save $560 million in averted costs and cumulative savings by 2017, according to the Council on State Governments.  Those savings have also made it possible for North Carolina to re-invest nearly $4 million into community-based treatment programs, the council reported.

After Texas officials implemented sentencing reforms in 2007, including probation, drug treatment, pre-trial diversion programs and intermediate sanction facilities, cost savings from the measures allowed Texas to close three existing prisons and scrap plans to build three new ones.

As Oklahoma has watched other states — including Texas — implement those reforms, the political climate surrounding criminal justice reform here has changed, Steele told The Frontier in an interview.  Steele, who left office due to term limits, became the executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry in Oklahoma City.

“When we first started having this conversation in 2009 to 2011, our prisons were at 99 percent capacity.  Now, they’re over 122 percent capacity,” he said.  “The fact that the problem has not gone away — in fact, it’s gotten worse — causes us to be more willing to have this conversation.”...

“I think the public is ready to have that conversation.  I think the public is way ahead of the legislature on this issue. There’s actually a pretty significant disconnect between the voters and elected officials on this issue.”  Hence taking the issue to the voters through the two state questions....

Now several bills in the legislature aim to achieve similar goals of the two state questions backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice reform.  But Steele’s group wants to put the decision directly in the hands of voters.  And he’s got the backing of organizations like Right on Crime and the ACLU of Oklahoma.

“It’s a little more work, but in the end we think it’s going to be well worth it,” he said.  “The people of Oklahoma ought to be able to have a direct say so in this issue.”  It is the citizens who pay the $500 million each year to fund Oklahoma’s prison system, after all.

The Rev. Ray Owens, pastor of Tulsa’s Metropolitan Baptist Church, was one who offered an “amen” after Steele and Neal spoke to the crowd at Women in Recovery last week.  “Instead of investing more money in prisons, I believe it’s time for us to invest more in our people,” Owens said.

March 15, 2016 at 09:39 PM | Permalink


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