Much to consider in reform movements for criminal justice and police (Capitol Update)

There are two movements going on today that are related but not the same thing. One could generically be called police reform, and the other is criminal justice reform. Criminal justice reform is in the midst of a near decade-long effort to make Oklahoma justice fairer and to lower incarceration rates which, on any given day, are either number one or number two in the world. Police reform has also been an issue, but it became a movement when the whole world was exposed to a live video of a Black man, George Floyd, having the life squeezed out of him at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Both movements have exposed longstanding racial and economic injustice that belie the American ideal of equal justice under law. But police reform relates to what happens on the streets, while criminal justice reform is generally what happens in the courtroom. What the police visibly do on the streets has opened up again the discussion about the underlying causes and results of economic and racial injustice. What courts do, usually without much of an audience, is short lived on the front pages for most cases, but the result can last a lifetime.

Criminal justice reform is about issues like bail reform, people sitting in jail for months awaiting trial because they are too poor to pay their way out, or pleading guilty so they can go home. It is about over-incarceration, depending more on mental health and addiction treatment than prison, and making sure the process is fair. Police reform is about selection and training of officers, oversight, and how to make policing effective and safer for both the citizen and the police.

For the moment, police reform seems to have subsumed the criminal justice reform movement. Police misconduct, when viewed on video or in person, can be shocking and cause outrage. Conversely, police feel misjudged and blamed for someone else’s actions. Emotions between some police and some in the police reform movement are raw, and people tend to take sides. There is much to be considered in both police reform and criminal justice reform. Both are worthy of a fair hearing and action by policymakers. 


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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