Seeking Justice Reform in the Sooner State

Last week, advocates, policy experts, and concerned citizens alike gathered in Oklahoma City for “Criminal Justice: A Better Way for Oklahoma,” an event co-hosted by the Charles Koch Institute and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA). The event featured a panel of policy experts from across the country who discussed how proposed criminal justice reform measures could increase public safety and fix the budget shortfall in the Sooner State.

Although Oklahoma is known for its geniality, compassion, and resiliency, its incarceration rates rank as some of the highest in the nation. Oklahoma is ranked number one in female incarceration per capita, second for male incarceration per capita, and fifth in the nation for overall incarceration. As a result, many Oklahomans continue to experience the negative effects of the state’s incarceration crisis.

The event kicked off with remarks from Alison Fraser, the Charles Koch Institute’s managing director of policy and research, and Kris Steele, former speaker of the state House of Representatives. Both highlighted the negative impact that overwhelming incarceration rates have had on Oklahoma residents, as well as the urgent need for reform.

Steele, who is also the executive director of TEEM (a non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals gain access to education, job training, and employment post-incarceration), discussed research he conducted while serving in the state legislature. His research into the state’s prison system found that most offenders get negligible guidance to correct the underlying causes of their criminal behavior. When communities fail to address the reasons individuals commit crimes, recidivism and the threat to public safety increase.

Steele said that a felony record—which one in 12 Oklahomans currently possesses—precludes many former inmates from employment opportunities that could help them lead productive lives, pay fines, and support their families. When former offenders are unable to secure employment, the cycle of incarceration continues, further proving the importance of rehabilitative programs.

Adam Luck, the Oklahoma director for Right on Crime, a nationwide initiative aimed at raising public awareness of criminal justice reform issues, highlighted the measures that states  like Texas have taken to successfully save taxpayers money through corrections reform. While Oklahoma’s population and budget size are both considerably smaller than Texas’, Luck argued that the state could still achieve increased public safety, lower incarceration rates, and increase revenue through the modification of sentencing guidelines. Luck stressed that it is also critical for society to begin to differentiate between violent criminals and those that may be incarcerated for lesser offenses, such as marijuana possession.

Gene Perry, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, pointed out that many of the crimes considered felonies in Oklahoma are misdemeanors in other states. Once an individual has been convicted of a felony, the collateral consequences can pose lasting and devastating effects for both the individual and the economy. Many nonviolent felons are denied benefits and student loans, and have difficulty finding jobs or obtaining driver’s licenses. Perry said that rehabilitation programs, parole, and other services could save money if they are not added onto a sentence, but rather are a part of the sentence.

Lauren Krisai, the director of criminal justice reform for Reason Foundation, has extensively researched national efforts that would safely reduce both prison populations and violent crime. Her research discovered that some states have changed as many as 241 misdemeanor offenses to civil citations, and she further recommended that minimum mandatory sentences for drug possession be eliminated.

The event concluded with lively remarks from David Prater, the Oklahoma Country district attorney. Prater, a former law enforcement official and long-time advocate of prison reform, has served as the district attorney for the state’s largest county since 2007.

He discussed the human cost of mass incarceration, methods for reintroducing nonviolent felons to society, and the role that “certificates of rehabilitation” could play in future re-entry efforts. The goal of such a certificate, Prater said, would be to help former inmates identify and address the specific issue that drove them to incarceration. Once the certificate is earned, any public record of the individual’s wrong-doing would be automatically expunged.

Jonathan Small, president of OCPA, concluded the discussion. He said the progress that has been made in other states proves that criminal justice reform can reduce crime and costs, as well as return a sense of productivity, compassion, and hope to families and communities. Additionally, he said, Oklahomans are embracing corrections reform at a greater rate than most blue states, signaling many residents are realizing there is an overwhelming possibility for change.

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