Group Launches Criminal Justice Reform Effort

Shawn Ashley, eCapito

A new coalition focused on criminal justice reform announced Wednesday its formation and the filing of an initiative petition that would reclassify some low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies and would use the anticipated cost savings for rehabilitation programs and mental health treatment.
The group, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, will be chaired by former House Speaker Kris Steele, who authored the Justice Reinvestment Initiative while a member of the Legislature.

“Right now in Oklahoma, we have the second highest incarceration rate in the county, which drains significant resources away from investments that can reduce crime by rehabilitating Oklahomans and returning them to productive lives in the community,” Steele said during a Capitol press conference. “It’s time we institute a more effective approach that addresses the root causes of crime and makes Oklahoma’s communities safer. I’m proud that so many of our leaders agree and are joining with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform to take the issue directly to the people.”

Steele and other speakers at Wednesday’s even touted the diverse groups that have come together to support the initiative, including the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs (OCPA) and the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI). Also represented at Wednesday’s press conference was the Oklahoma City Police Department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.

Other supporters include the Tulsa Regional Chamber, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce ReMerge, the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition and Women in Recovery, as well as others.
Information provided by the coalition indicates the ballot initiative will be made up of two parts, which will be known as State Question 780 and State Question 781. The first part would reclassify certain low-level offenses, such as drug possession and certain property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies. By reclassifying the offenses, the coalition says, Oklahoma is able to trigger cost savings from decreased corrections spending.

The second part of the ballot initiative, according to the coalition, invests those savings into addressing the cases of crime through rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior and go untreated in prison and education and job training programs to help low-level offenders turn their lives around, find employment and avoid going back to prison.

“The purpose is to give low-level offenders a second chance. This evidence-based approach helps people overcome underlying conditions of criminigenic behavior and return individuals to productive lives within our communities,” said Steele.

Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, said the proposal represented a culture shift in the state’s approach to criminal justice. “There’s a culture shift that is being made in this state and across the country,” Peterson said. “Being tough on crime is changing to being smart on crime. Evidence-based performance measures that emphasize public safety, evidence-based treatment and supervision and diversion programs that work, especially for these first-time, low-level offenders.”

Peterson added, “Incarcerating low-level offenders alongside violent offenders can only increase the potential for those low-level offenders to become violent once they are released back into society. So, we want to make sure public safety is first and foremost in our decisions, as well.”

Peterson noted that children, too, are impacted by the incarceration of their parents, which affects other agencies, such as the Department of Human Services. Many of those children, she said, grow up to be incarcerated themselves.

“We need to correct corrections,” said Peterson. “If not now, when? We are at 119 percent of capacity. No single piece of legislation is going to fix this. This is going to be an ongoing effort for probably years to come.”
Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma, “The dynamic duo of double destruction of substance abuse and mental health issues currently treated as a crime causes decimation to our families when they invade our households. Then the decimation is turned to destruction by the justice system when it engages these who have made bad decisions. In my community, we are disproportionately impacted by both effects. Father and mothers removed from homes and children left to repeat the cycle.”

While a pastor, Young said he sponsored a young man he sponsored in drug court under his oversight. “Two years later, he was employed in the oilfield,” said Young, “joined my church, influenced his mother and father to join my church, influenced two of his three sisters…to attend my church. I performed his wedding. He is still married.

“Unfortunately, he was just laid off, but I spoke with him and he is confident about his future. And best of all, he named his new son George.”

Young added, “We all need a second and third chance. This initiative provides that with just that with so many other benefits.”

Gene Rainbolt, BancFirst Corp. chairman, said the state was not receiving a positive return on its criminal justice investments. Rainbolt noted that up to 70 percent of the children of women who are incarcerated become criminals and end up in the corrections system. “So, what are we doing? We are running a factory to create future felons. Ridiculous.”

Rainbolt added, “If you’re getting a negative return on your capital, you’re going bankrupt and that’s where we’re headed.”

The current system also negatively affects Oklahoma’s image in the rest of the country, Rainbolt said.
“We’re viewed as being mean-spirited, poor, ignorant and very, very backward. That’s not who we really are,” he said.

Rainbolt said the proposed reform would not only save taxpayers money, but they would also produce a better Oklahoma.

Steele said Gov. Mary Fallin, who during the legislative interim had a task force working on criminal justice reform proposals, is aware of the initiative petition and “seems supportive.”

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