Justice reform supporters collecting signatures to get state questions on ballot (Tulsa Business & Legal News)

By Ralph Schaefer

Supporters for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma have taken to the streets to collect signatures to reduce population in state prisons as proposed by State Questions 780 and 781.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform officially started the drive March 10 and have 60 days — until early June — to get more than 65,000 signatures on the two petitions. That means a minimum of 10,833 signatures are needed to be collected daily during the drive to meet the goal. Weekends — Saturday and Sunday — are included in the numbered days.

If the drive is successful, the questions will be on the November general election ballot.

Kris Steele, chair of the statewide drive, said at the press conference at Tulsa’s Women In Recovery Center that the campaign goal is to take the issue directly to voters so they can weigh in on whether it’s time to take a smarter approach to public safety.

The two state questions would reduce the prison population and redirect savings toward addressing the root causes of crime, he said. Low-level offenders would get the opportunity to turn their lives around, stay out of prison and be taxpaying citizens rather than being supported by taxpayers.

It is a way to reduce spending on prison expansion and redirect taxpayer resources to effective treatment and rehabilitation programs.

The goal of the two ballot measures is to pursue sentencing reforms for certain low-level offenses that would trigger cost savings to be invested in evidence-based programs that address drug addiction, mental health conditions and provide access to education and job trying, Steele said.

Question 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses — drug possession and low-level property offenses under $1,000 — as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

The cost savings from these categories alone would trigger cost savings from decreased corrections spending.

Question 781 would invest those savings into addressing the root causes of crime through rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior and prison, Steele said.

Job training programs can help these people turn lives around, find employment and avoid prison.

Mike Neal, Tulsa Regional Chamber CEO and president, speaking for the One Voice Coalition, endorsed Questions 780 and 781, noting that people diverted from prison would be available for the local workforce.

Trained people in the workforce will have a positive impact on the state budget.

Stephanie Horton, Tulsa County’s Women’s Defense Team director, said it is difficult to find housing for women who have a felony conviction on their record.

It makes no difference whether or not these women have children, she added. “They lose their driver’s license and their job if they have one.”

A misdemeanor would make it possible for them to stay with their family, keep their driver’s license and job.

Amanda Spicer, a Women in Recovery graduate, said she supports the initiative because she knows from personal experience that it is the smartest way to reduce prison populations and make communities safer.

Training people with health conditions like drug abuse so they can return to living productive lives in their communities is vital, she said.

Spicer said that as a child she grew up in an environment riddled with substance abuse and drug addiction. As a result, she turned to alcohol and drugs, modeling her behavior after those she had witnessed since birth. That pattern continued after she was released from prison but not free from addiction.

It was only after she was admitted to the Women in Recovery program that she got the help she needed to remain sober.

Supporters span the political spectrum and represent diverse views and concerns of Oklahomans, Steele said.

Some of the coalition members include: Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Right on Crime of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Policy Institute, George Kaiser Family Foundation, ACLU of Oklahoma, Inasmuch Foundation, Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Oklahoma Women’s Coalition ReMerge, TEEM, The Oklahoma Academy, Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, Women in Recovery and YWCA of Tulsa.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.