Panelists discuss need for criminal justice reform (Norman Transcript)

By Jessica Bruha

OKLAHOMA CITY – After former House Speaker Kris Steele and Adam Luck, Oklahoma state director of Right on Crime discussed the need for criminal justice reform, a panel launched into a discussion about the issue.

Some of the topics discussed Thursday at the event, Criminal Justice: A better way for Oklahoma, included over-criminalization, excessive or disproportionate sentencing and collateral consequences.

Panelists included Jonathan Small, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs president; Gene Perry, Oklahoma Policy Institute policy director; Lauren Krisai, director of criminal justice reform with the Reason Foundation; and Luck.

The moderator for the event was Alison Fraser, managing director of research and policy for the Charles Koch Institute.

Krisai talked about how Oklahoma’s sentencing laws are harsh. Minimum mandatory sentences for drug possession should be eliminated, and in other states that have already done that, there has been a reduction in the number of prisoners, as well as a decreased crime rate, she said.

“We charge a lot of things as felonies here that are misdemeanors in other states,” Perry said.

Then, once an individual has been convicted, there’s collateral consequences. Those individuals are denied benefits, can’t get student loans, have difficulty finding a job, face drivers license restrictions so they can’t drive to a job to pay their fines and fees, he said.

“They’re cut off from the American dream. Cut of from the community,” Perry said.

“When you are sentenced to prison and you do your time, your debt is supposed to be done, but increasingly, there are so many collateral consequences that that is no longer the case,” Fraser said.

“So these are really tragic barriers to ex-felons who are just trying to get back into society. And then there are the harms to our families and the harms to our communities.”

While it’s pretty commonly known that Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate per capita in the country, Fraser said the United States actually has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

“We incarcerate, on average, 7 out of every 1,000 people. Behind us, but by a long shot, is Rwanda (with) 5 out of every 1,000 people,” she said.

Developed countries like Germany, France and Canada incarcerate around 1 out of every 1,000 people.

Oklahoma also has one of the three fastest growing prison populations in the country, she said.

“One of the main reasons why Oklahoma’s prison system is growing and continues to grow is because of 85 percent crimes,” Luck said.

More and more people are staying in prison longer. Another problem is that a few years ago, there were 1,500 to 1,600 people across the state waiting in county jails for a bed within the state prison system.

Luck said jails charge the state prison system a per diem rate and in 2013, $22 million went to county jails because of the issue. So a decision was made to clear the jails out.

Without building a single facility, they created an additional 1,400 beds within the existing state prison system.

“What we did was we took our facilities and identified spaces like day rooms, common areas, and we put beds in them. We double, triple and quadruple-booked cells,” Luck said.

The prisons are now at 119 percent of operational capacity. While Luck said they do not know the actual capacity of those buildings, they believe it’s in the range of 150 to 160 percent.

“So that’s one reason why our prison system grew so significantly in 2014-2015, and the problem is, we’re already back up. Fiscal 2016 is not even over, we’re already back up to 900 people waiting in county jails and we can’t create another 1,400 beds,” he said.

While productive members of society are being put in prison, the state is losing money and the economy is suffering. Perry said using programs, parole and other services could save money if they are not added onto a sentence, but rather, are a part of the sentence.

Small said there’s also a disparity in the system. There’s a difference in people who get drunk and commit a crime versus people who smoke marijuana and commit a crime.

People are committing nonviolent crimes, yet they’re being treated the same as people who are violent offenders, Luck said.

The time has now come for bold action, many of the panelists said. It’s going to require change through legislation.

It’s also going to require communities to step up and provide services for those needing treatment for things like drug addition and mental illness, which are often the root cause of criminogenic behavior.

“About half of Oklahoma’s prison population either has had a history of or currently has a mental illness, and many also face addictions. There is a better way — for taxpayers, our communities, and offenders themselves — to address nonviolent crimes,” stated information provided at the Thursday night event.

“Successful reforms in other states show that criminal justice reform can reduce crime and costs at the same time.”

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