Oklahoma can’t afford ‘baby steps’ on criminal justice reform (Capitol Updates)

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. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

President Obama during his visit to the federal prison in Enid, Oklahoma
President Obama during his visit to the federal prison in Enid, Oklahoma

It was good to see Governor Fallin’s remarks about criminal justice in her statement about President Obama’s visit to Oklahoma that included a stop at the federal prison in El Reno.  Governor Fallin said, “There is an emerging bipartisan consensus that our justice system must be ‘smart on crime’ as well as tough on crime. For individuals with mental health and addiction issues, for instance, we need to do a better job of offering treatment and supervision as alternatives to prolonged incarceration. The president and I have some common ground on this issue, as do some Republican presidential candidates as well as leading conservative activists like the Koch family.

“In Oklahoma, Republicans and Democrats have worked together on ‘smart on crime’ policies for non-violent offenders by passing alternatives to mandatory minimum sentencing; relying on drug, mental health and veterans courts as alternatives to criminal prosecution and incarceration; and pursuing reforms outlined in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. We will continue to work to improve our criminal justice system so that it offers the greatest possible protections to the law-abiding public and the greatest rehabilitation opportunities for those who have strayed.”

Like President Obama, Governor Fallin is in her second term.  The President, facing strong opposition in Congress for most of his legislative initiatives, may find some common ground with Congressional Republicans on criminal justice issues if the governor is correct about a “bipartisan consensus.”  But Governor Fallin is in a stronger position in Oklahoma.  As governor she leads a state with a legislature that has a veto-proof majority in her own party in both houses of the legislature.  Under these circumstances willingness to lead on what might be considered a politically risky issue ought to bear results.

As the governor said, some recent progress has been made.  But unfortunately most of the “reforms” have been watered down considerably to gain passage, and then if funding is required it has not been forthcoming.  Even federal funds that could be available have been rejected.  This is not just an issue involving crime and punishment.  The criminal justice system affects race relations, poverty, family disintegration, hopelessness, lack of opportunity and mental and physical health as well as public safety in Oklahoma.  Hopefully, as she progresses through her final term we’ll see the governor in the trenches fighting for a better system.  A strong voice from the top of state government will make progress measurable in miles rather than inches.  Those affected by the current system, which is potentially nearly everyone, cannot wait for political leaders to take “baby steps.”  And Oklahoma can’t afford it.

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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.

One thought on “Oklahoma can’t afford ‘baby steps’ on criminal justice reform (Capitol Updates)

  1. Dear Mr. du Bois,

    So nice to hear from a fellow thinker! I so enjoyed the piece you sent me. So thoughtful and common-sensical (is that a word?) I have often written about the wisdom of legalizing drugs so I completely agree with your position.

    I live in upstate New York so I have no way of knowing Mr. Mark Woodward, spokesman, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. But I sure know people like him. I’ve been writing my syndicated crime and justice column for many years now. Before that, I was a travelling correspondent for several different news organizations. I was always stunned by myopic thinking officials like Mr. Woodward. They lock into one way of thinking and nothing can change their mind. Sad that they cannot see what bad policy creates.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to write to me. I’m assuming you read my column in the Stillwater newspaper? Have a lovely rest of the weekend. Very pleased to make your acquaintance.

    Diane Dimond
    Journalist/Author/Syndicated Columnist
    Creators Syndicate

    Ron du Bois, Professor Emeritus
    612 S. Kings St., Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA, 74074
    (405) 377- 2524
    email: duboisr@sbcglobal.net
    fax: 405 372- 5023


    Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, says that the alleged dangers of cannabis are the very reason for continuing the (failed) Drug War; the reason punishment and incarceration are necessary; the reason drug prohibition, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and his own hefty salary (paid for by public taxation) are all necessary. But I believe Mr. Woodward’s] position provides a perfect illustration of a statement by the great American writer and social reformer Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
    One presidential candidate has said, “Deep seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.” In my view these words apply to Mark Woodward’s presentation to the Stillwater League of Women Voters on June 9, 2015. It seems obvious, in looking at history, that “deep seated cultural codes” accounted for German notions of racial superiority during WW II, as well as for our own racist notions during the Colonial and the Civil War era. What is not so obvious to people like Mr. Woodward is that they also apply to drug policies that insure suffering, misery, and death.

    Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s series on marijuana explains the medicinal value of cannabis, but Woodward paints every strain of cannabis as a “gateway drug,” which is why he supports the war on cannabis. In direct opposition, Dr. Gupta explains that one tiny squirt of liquid cannabis derived from a strain known as “Charlotte’s Web,” taken orally, instantly reduces seizures and, in some cases, eliminates them. His documentaries, called “Weed,” show graphically that the relief to afflicted children and families is enormous.

    Woodward had nothing good to say about Portugal’s thirteen-year experiment with the legalization of all drugs, even though the results have been positive. And he knew nothing of Canadian psychologist Dr. Bruce Alexander’s research with rats pointing to environment as the reason for addiction, rather than any substance itself.

    Woodward gave the audience reason to believe all marijuana users smoke “morning, noon, and night.” No mention was made that the very opposite can be true, especially with regard to medical marijuana. “A tiny amount the size of a pea (of the right strain) and one inhalation is sufficient to knock out pain for a day. A second single puff in the evening takes pain away all night…two puff a day are hardly the same as “smoking morning, noon, and night.” WHO ARE YOU QUOTING HERE?

    Woodward failed to explain that the right strain of cannabis can remove the craving for nicotine, perhaps the most intractable of all addictions. He failed to explain that THC is not the only component of cannabis, or that CBD (the curative component) is capable of actually repairing the damage to lung cancer caused by smoking cigarettes. (A possible downside may be that when cannabis use is stopped, the craving for nicotine returns.)

    According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “Evidence from one animal study suggests extracts from whole-plant marijuana can shrink one of the most serious types of brain tumors.” But cannabis, in Woodward’s view, has no curative powers. He appears interested only in talking about THC, the mood altering component, rather than the miraculous curative power of the medical component, CBD.

    No doubt many League members thought Woodward delivered a “powerful message.” I hope some disagree with him and the lay public, informed only by the American model of prohibition, incarceration, hatred and stigma towards the illness of substance use disorder.

    In the meantime the Texas house has become the fifth state to in the U.S. to initiate legalization of recreational marijuana use. Should Oklahoma follow the lead of Texas, or that of Mark Woodward, drug warrior, myopic thinker, and spokesperson for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control?

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