Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
“We’re not going to build any more prisons.” I remember House Speaker Dan Draper making that declarative statement many years ago when I was a freshman House member. In the previous decade there had been prison riots, and Oklahoma’s prison system had been taken over by a federal court as the result of a lawsuit filed by inmates. The state had already spent a lot of money, but prisons were still overcrowded and there were tremendous demands for new prison building. This was before the era of private prisons which were considered bad public policy in those days. Draper knew there were only two choices: more prisons or less prisoners. He chose the latter and made it stick.
Criminal justice has always been a difficult legislative issue, and the Legislature in the 1980s and 1990s, predictably, was schizophrenic. To deal with overcrowding legislators passed “safety valve” legislation that forced the release of inmates when prisons reached over capacity. They also provided educational, vocational and behavioral health programs. These weren’t popular in that “tough on crime” era, and legislators who supported them caught grief from opponents. Interestingly, I never knew of a member who was defeated for being “soft on crime.” These measures kept the prison population under control for quite a while.
But at the same time those Legislatures, and those who followed, set the stage for some of the problems of today by passing more harsh sentencing laws. We find ourselves again with severe overcrowding, a dearth of rehabilitation programs, and pressure to build new prisons. I hope today’s legislators can find a more permanent solution than those of the past. A good start will be a leader who simply says, as Draper did, “no more building prisons,” and who is willing to do what it takes to limit the need for more prisons. But there is a better way than simply letting people out the back door as more come in the front door.
Today’s legislators have a better opportunity. Oklahomans have repeatedly shown they are tired of spending their tax money on indiscriminately locking thousands of people away for long sentences. They want to keep dangerous people behind bars and find a better answer for the others. And we have 30 years of experience by other states with notable successes. Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is designed to produce the most expensive solution to crime: “lock ’em up.” I expect a vigorous effort to change that in the upcoming session. Criminal justice reform can be a hallmark of the new governor who wants to solve problems and prudent legislators.