State obligated to address systemic racism through legislative action (Capitol Update)

One victim of the abbreviated 2020 Legislative session was criminal justice reform. In the 2019 session, numerous reform bills made their way through the legislative process only to stall at the end. Kudos to the authors who carried those measures. Although the reform effort was delayed, the bills were still alive at the beginning of the 2020 session, ready to be debated, amended if necessary, and passed.

The session began with high hopes for cash bail reform, fines and fees reform, empowering citizen juries, reform of sentencing for second or subsequent offenses, probation reform, “possession with intent” reform, and others. In the end, none of the bills were considered a priority to be considered in the shortened 2020 session. 

The fact that criminal justice reform is not happening matters. Once again, we see an African American killed by a police officer, this time in a particularly gruesome and callous manner. The video and audio are available for the world to see. The results are protests and demonstrations around the country, partly to demand justice for the victim, George Floyd. But the protests are also an explosion of anger and frustration resulting from the inaction of those in power toward the racism, injustice, and inequality regularly exhibited toward people who look like George Floyd. 

Watching what is happening in the streets of America and some places in Oklahoma, one must wonder if the racism in our culture will ever be fixed. Racism among individuals, private racism, seems as old as humankind. It is difficult to defeat because it is a matter of the heart. No law can be passed to make people change their thoughts or what they hold in their hearts. Just as prejudice and bigotry are taught, decency and fairness must be learned before they can be lived. The process is slow, even generational.

But correcting systemic state racism, as opposed to private racism, can no longer wait. When officers of the law, whether police officers, prosecutors, or judges act, they bring the full force of the state to bear on an individual. There is no room for racism in their actions or in the system of justice they administer. Yet, systemic racism is glaring.

In figures calculated by Prison Policy Initiative using U.S. Census 2010 Summary, incarceration rates in Oklahoma by race/ethnicity, including all types of correctional facilities, show the number of people incarcerated per 100,000 population as follows: White, 767; Hispanic, 1,867; Black, 3,796; American Indian/Alaska Native 1,059. When the system produces injustice, it is likely to affect white people the least and Black people and other minorities the most. Surely no one would argue that Black people are inherently nearly 5 times more likely to deserve incarceration than white people.

These numbers are not totally fixable without fixing other places in our culture where racism exists like health care, education, housing, employment, and others. That said, where the power of the state targets an individual for arrest and punishment, the racism must be confronted. The state cannot continue to ignore racial injustice caused by its own laws and practices. Generally, those who fail to act on criminal justice reform do not do so because they are racists. They do so because reform is difficult and complex and fraught with political risk. But because all the levers of power are in control of the state, it is obligatory upon the state to cure itself with legislative action soon. 


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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