Two state questions propose criminal sentencing reform (The Ada News)

By Joy Hampton Cnhi

NORMAN — Oklahoma has been warehousing people rather than reforming them because the Department of Corrections doesn’t have the money to address root causes, prison reform advocate Kris Steele said.

The former speaker of the House and Republican representative spoke Friday in Norman about State Questions 780 and 781, which will be on the November ballot.

Steele said the two items have bipartisan support because the changes promote financial responsibility, as well as justice reform.


SQ 780 proposes to reduce the state’s prison population and save money by reclassifying certain minor offenses, such as simple possession of drugs and property crimes under $1,000, from felonies to misdemeanors.

SQ 781 would direct savings from 780 to local entities for community-based rehabilitation programs like mental health care, substance abuse treatment and job training, with the intention of helping low-level offenders become productive members of society.

Currently, people with felonies are hindered in Oklahoma after they’ve paid their debt to society, Steele said.

“A felony conviction acts as a scarlet letter that excludes people from active socialization,” he said.

In Oklahoma, a felony conviction follows offenders for the rest of their lives, impacting job and housing opportunities. Additionally, most come out of prison owing thousands of dollars in fees and fines and must immediately start paying that money back or risk being sent back into the system.

Worst of all, Steele said, is the fact that core issues such as poverty, drug addiction and mental health impairment have not been addressed.

“On average, 8,400 offenders re-enter society each year with little more than $50 and a bus ticket,” Steele said.

Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the country, is No. 2 in male incarceration and has the highest rate of incarcerating persons of color, but crime in the Sooner state has increased rather than decreased.

“We incarcerate women at more than twice the rate of the nation,” Steele said. “As we talk today, our prisons are at 112 percent capacity. Six weeks ago, we were at 120 percent capacity.”

To lower that rate, the state rented a private facility to house prisoners. Oklahoma also has the highest ratio of offenders to corrections officers of any state in the nation.

“Spending for corrections has increased 172 percent in the past two decades. It’s the second fastest-growing expenditure,” Steele said.

Steele recounted his “light bulb moment” when he realized that something needed to change.

Steele looked at data generated by assessments done on offenders when they enter Oklahoma Department of Corrections custody and when they leave DOC custody as they exit prison.

The assessment evaluates the person to see if he or she is a low, medium or high risk to public safety. Offenders were assessed for every term served, whether they were incarcerated five or 20 years.

“It didn’t matter how long the person had been incarcerated. Without fail, every person in the study posed a greater threat after they had been incarcerated,” Steele said.


Problems like addiction and mental health were not improving during incarceration and, in some cases, people were learning more anti-social behaviors inside. Additionally, they were coming out with a felony conviction label.

“Even though we’re incarcerating more people, our crime rates remain high,” he said. “We’re not addressing the root problem.”

The issue is compounded by the fact that families are affected, as well. Steele learned that children of incarcerated parents are four times more likely to become incarcerated, and some studies indicate that number is closer to seven times more likely. About 74 percent of the women incarcerated in Oklahoma are mothers, leaving many children without primary caregivers.

“I am convinced that the track that we’re on is unsustainable, either financially or socially,” Steele said.

Polls have indicated voters in Oklahoma are ready for change.

“We are not legalizing anything. We are not decriminalizing anything,” Steele said.

Drug manufacturing and distribution will remain felonies.

Supporters of SQs 780 and 781 include the conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the liberal ACLU of Oklahoma, several county sheriffs, including Cleveland County Sheriff Joe Lester and the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Opposing is the District Attorney’s Council.

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