Oklahoma advocates for criminal justice reform meet with experts (Red Dirt Report)

By Mindy Ragan Wood

OKLAHOMA CITY — Thursday night, advocates for criminal justice reform gathered to hear a panel of experts discussing public policy regarding Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. “Criminal Justice: A Better Way for Oklahoma” was hosted by the Charles Koch Institute and the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs.

A state known worldwide for helping its citizens during disasters conversely ranks number one in female incarceration per capita, second for male incarceration, fifth in the nation for overall.

The US Department of Justice found in 2012 that Oklahoma incarcerated 648 out of every 100,000 residents; approximately 1 in 12 Oklahomans has a felony record.  

With the budget shortfall now at $1.3 billion for the state, some said Oklahoma has no choice but to embrace proven criminal justice reform measures that save money and increase public safety.

The Oklahoma Department of “Confinement”

The panel discussed the failure of imprisonment without rehabilitation, saying that Oklahoma is simply warehousing offenders. 

Kris Steele, former Speaker of the House, discussed research he conducted while serving in the legislature. As the result of that research, he authored and saw passage of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a measure crippled by a lack of funding. 

Steele is the executive director of TEEM, a non-profit organization which helps felons successfully re-enter society. His extensive research into the state’s prison system found offenders in prison get almost no help to correct the underlying cause of criminogenic behavior.

“Not addressing the reasons people commit crimes has increased the threat of public safety. In 2009 even though we were spending more money on incarceration and were incarcerating more people than we ever had, our crime rate remained virtually unchanged; and in fact our violent crime rate had increased,” Steele said.

Oklahoma’s violent crime rate rose 18 percent in 2011 because, Steele said in a previous interview with Red Dirt Report, some non-violent offenders are influenced by violent offenders.

State prison capacity has swelled to 119 percent, but the state’s budget for corrections has not kept up with the need for rehabilitative services like substance abuse and mental health services. Because state prisons are grossly short-staffed and budget cuts have cut programs, even some volunteer education efforts have ceased in prisons where there are not enough officers to supervise offenders in those programs.

When these offenders are released from prison, Steele said the causes of their criminal behavior remain and the “scarlet letter” of felony record precludes them from most employment opportunities and community based services that could help them live a productive life.

“Employment alone reduces recidivism by 42 percent,” said Steele. When offenders can’t find a job, they can’t pay back fines, and then cycle of incarceration continues.

Are Oklahomans Ready for Reform?

In Gov. Mary Fallin’s state-of-the-state address, she decried the harsh drug policies that haven’t deterred drug abuse as the “elephant in the room.”

Those policies have made national headlines for offenders who are serving longer sentences for drug possession than those convicted of murder or rape.  

Tough on crime policies that are said to win elections for legislators may not keep them in office next term. Oklahomans are demanding reform.

The impact of incarceration in Oklahoma has reached a peak as more and more residents have a loved one with a felony record. Gene Perry is the director of Oklahoma Policy Institute and said they routinely hear from Oklahomans who see the need for reform.

“I think Oklahomans are more ready for this than we give them credit for. I think it’s something that has extended deep, deep into our communities and Oklahomans are realizing it. They get it, that there’s possibility for change,” said Perry.

Jonathan Small, president of Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said legislators should take notice.

“Policy analysts like to use a phrase, ‘lawmakers are lagging indicators’ (because) they’re generally way behind the public and we’re seeing that right now in Oklahoma. What’s interesting is that Oklahomans are embracing corrections reform at a greater rate than even some blue states,” he said.

The Fiscal Savings of Justice Reform

Grassroots justice reform advocates, Martie Buzzard and Cecilia Abrams, of Cleveland County. (Mindy Ragan Wood / Red Dirt Report)

Steele said criminal justice reform saves money and increases public safety. With a fiscal state of emergency, a $1.3 billion revenue shortfall, advocates point to saving money through corrections reform. 

Texas enacted their own justice reinvestment initiative and not only increased public safety, but saved $3 billion in seven-and-a-half years.

“They modified some of their sentencing guidelines to allow low-level offenders to remain in the community as opposed to being incarcerated. They followed through and applied treatment to those who needed it,” said Steele. “Their violent crime rates is as low as it’s been since 1968. As I understand it, they’ve had to close three state prisons.”

Adam Luck, director of Right on Crime, questioned how reform would progress differently in Oklahoma.

“The problem in Oklahoma is that we will never face that kind of growth, our growth is much slower and lower in numbers; it’s (reform) also not going to cost that much. We’ll never have that kind of impetus for change that Texas had.”

Steele said the success will be the same, but the numbers will likely reflect the difference in population and budget for Oklahoma. “Texas is a much bigger state, larger population, bigger budget; but proportionately in Oklahoma I think we can and will achieve the same sort of results Texas has,” said Steele. 

The percentage of savings for Oklahoma is projected to be similar, while the actual number in dollars would be different.

OCPA President Jonathan Small predicted recovered costs would add up in a ripple effect.

“The per capita income of Oklahomans is right at $43k. When you consider the fact that of the 28k people in prison, if they had not been in prison, and had just earned half the per capita level that’s another $306 million in income generation that our Oklahoma economy is doing without,” said Small.

He said with approximately $230 million spent on non-violent offenders, that money would be saved if those same offenders completed community based solutions and remained employed. The approximate annual cost of incarceration is $20k; community programs like drug and mental health court, and probation cost as little as $5k.

Small said, “Oklahoma’s Medicaid budget grew in 2004 from approximately $700 million to $1.9 billion. A direct cause in that growth is what happens when we take people (guilty) of a non-violent offense and put them in prison and then taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for their children who now need daycare assistance and government sponsored health care. It’s a real economic problem which is secondary to the human element (that) the problem poses as well.” 

Perry referred to the human cost of mass incarceration, saying that “non-violent offenders are “outsiders to the American Dream.”

With a felony record, Perry said, “people are branded for life.”

Felony offenders are denied access to student loans, state licenses for occupations, nutritional and other public services, and excluded by employers who don’t hire felons.

Perry said there are so many felons looking for work, that when “word gets out” that a certain employer hires felons, that business receives “waves after waves” of applications “because the demand is so high for people who want to work, who want to be part of society.”

Reform Considerations

Kris Steele, who also leads Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, has proposed a bold measure. With enough signatures, the Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act will be on the November ballot for general election. It reclassifies common low-level, non-violent felony crimes as misdemeanors. It lowers the maximum jail or state prison sentences, and allows the offender to pay restitution and fines.

Lauren Krisai, director of criminal justice reform for Reason Foundation, has researched national criminal justice reform efforts. She said some states have changed as many as 241 misdemeanor offenses to civil citations.

“It is possible to reduce prison populations in a safe way that could lead to reductions in violent crime as well,” said Krisai. 

Panelists offered a variety of suggestions to policy makers and organizations, including banning the box on applications that declares a felony record. “It doesn’t mean that the employer can’t ask about it in the interview process,” said Luck. Most applicants don’t get the chance to interview. “They probably are well qualified and even if they’re not, shouldn’t they have an opportunity to explain that (record)?”

Several states have banned the box. Corporations like Walmart, Target, and Hobby Lobby also no longer require it on their applications. Felons can find work at these business, pay their fines, and therefore stay out of prison. As they repay their debt to society, they can rebuild their lives.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater spoke in closing remarks about the human cost of mass incarceration and proposed a way for felons to start over with a clean slate. He proposed a “certificate of rehabilitation” be issued if a felon meets certain criteria.

David Prater, Oklahoma County DA, endorsing the need for criminal justice reform. (Mindy Ragan Wood / Red Dirt Report)

“You’ve proven yourself to no longer reoffend. You’ve addressed the issues that drove you to incarceration, you get the certificate and there’s an automatic expungement of your record. You can lawfully say that you are not a felon. That record is only accessible to law enforcement from that point forward. If you reoffend, law enforcement can use that record to enhance your sentence,” said Prater.

The forum drew a wide audience from conservative and liberal political views, grassroots advocates, and those impacted by the issues of addiction, mental health, and abuse.

Kris Steele was encouraged to see the discussion and bi-partisan support represented in the room. “I think this is our time. I believe the level of understanding and commitment and even enthusiasm to reform our criminal justice system is at an all-time high. I think the general public is beginning to understand that this is an issue that merits our full attention and our energy. The diversity of the groups working together, really represents Oklahoma at its best. We’re reminded we can work together to solve problems.”


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