Don’t let fear make us dumb

Photo by Anthony Gullen.
Photo by Anthony Gullen.

Recently a terrible crime has made the headlines in Oklahoma. Shortly after being fired from a food processing plant in Moore, Alton Nolen attacked two of his co-workers with a knife, beheading one and seriously injuring another.

The details of the crime are awful, and the perpetrator should be punished to the full extent of the law. However, our reaction to this incident could have repercussions far beyond Alton Nolen, his victims, and their families. There are already signs that state leaders may overreact in ways that harm all of us.

After the event, two Oklahoma District Attorneys said to the media that they were concerned that Nolen had only served two years in prison after being convicted of marijuana possession, cocaine possession, and assaulting a highway patrol trooper. He had been sentenced to two years each for the marijuana and assault charges and six years for the cocaine charges. A plea agreement with prosecutors allowed him to serve the sentences concurrently, and he was given credit reducing his prison time for time spent in jail before prison, good conduct, participating in a transition program, and other reasons.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board followed up with a column directly arguing that the Moore killing is likely to hurt corrections reform efforts in Oklahoma. They wrote:

Through the years we’ve urged Oklahoma policymakers to consider “smart on crime” reforms, embraced by many states, that help ease prison crowding, save money, reduce the recidivism rate and divert nonviolent offenders away from prison in the first place. A ghastly case like Nolen’s will serve to make any reform in Oklahoma a much tougher sell — unless the suggestions are to lock more people up for longer amounts of time.

This would be a tragedy, both because Oklahoma’s corrections system is desperately in need of reform and also because the lessons being taken from the Moore event are fundamentally wrong.

Alton Nolen is clearly a seriously disturbed man. While we may never know entirely what led him to commit terrible violence, it makes little sense to claim he would have become more stable if he had spent six years locked away in prison instead of two. Our corrections system already locks up non-violent offenders far longer and more frequently than the national average. Oklahoma incarcerated more than 27,000 people in 2013. Kansas, which has three-fourths of our state’s population, incarcerated one-third as many people. Meanwhile, our murder rate was almost double that in Kansas.

What we’re doing isn’t stopping crime, and calls to double down on a failing strategy won’t make us safer.

Instead of implying that Nolen wasn’t imprisoned long enough, we could reasonably consider the opposite – if by locking away instead of treating and effectively supervising a young man with substance abuse problems, did we turn him into something far worse?

[pullquote]What we’re doing isn’t stopping crime, and calls to double down on a failing strategy won’t make us safer.” [/pullquote]We need a rational approach to criminal justice — and that means neither leniency nor mere toughness. It means smarter policing, effective community supervision, and punishments that are swift, certain, and proportional to the crime. When we overwhelm the system with long sentences for every violation, offenders actually are less likely to be punished because prisons and law enforcement have been left underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board has previously made a strong case for being smarter on crime, and what they said before is still true today. As a state, we should not let this terrible crime make us abandon good sense.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

One thought on “Don’t let fear make us dumb

  1. Here’s the way to sell it to the Legislature: Tell them Rick Perry has been supporting smart-on-crime reform issues in Texas. Our Legislature follows Texas like a clueless lost puppy.

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