Oklahoma City – On Wednesday (January 27), a coalition of community leaders and experts from across Oklahoma came to the state Capitol Blue Room formally to launch a new organization: Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
Led by former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, the Coalition says it will take a “Smart on Crime” approach to public safety.
Leaders of the group said they will work to secure enough signatures to gain ballot status this November for a pair of initiatives aiming, as explained in a press release sent to reporters, “to reduce the prison population, save money, and make Oklahoma communities safer by addressing the root causes of crime and helping low-level offenders to turn their lives around.”
Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country and the highest incarceration rate for women, estimated to cost taxpayers nearly $500 million annually. Current policy, the advocates say, “drains significant resources away from investments that can do more to enhance public safety. As the state’s prison population continues growing – increasing by 12 percent between 2009 and 2014 – so does its price tag, which has increased by 172 percent in the past two decades.”
The coalition supports sentencing reforms for certain low-level offenses, to trigger cost savings to be invested in evidence-based programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions and provide access to education and job training, which are more effective approaches to reducing crime and keeping communities safe.
“Right now in Oklahoma, we have the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, which drains significant resources away from investments that can reduce crime by rehabilitating Oklahomans and returning them to productive lives in the community,” said Steele, Chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
“It’s time we institute a more effective approach that addresses the root causes of crime, and makes Oklahoma’s communities safer. I’m proud that so many of our leaders agree and are joining with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform to take the issue directly to the people,” said Steele, a Republican who represented Shawnee during his 12 years at the Capitol.
The initiative is generating significant praise and support from prominent leaders across the state, including Oklahoma City’s Chief of Police William Citty.
“The health and well-being of our communities is dependent on Oklahoma’s willingness to re-evaluate how and when we incarcerate persons who commit crimes,” said William Citty, Chief of Police in Oklahoma City.
“More and more research indicates that incarceration for lower level crimes doesn’t reduce crime in our communities. I have witnessed how alternative sentencing, with the appropriate resources and supervision, can help someone become a productive citizen without facing incarceration. If we don’t address it now we will continue to fill our jails and prisons while doing nothing to reduce the costs of incarceration, mental health and addiction.”
Supporters span the political spectrum and represent the diverse views and concerns of Oklahomans everywhere. Organizations involved include the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Right on Crime, the Oklahoma Policy Institute, the Tulsa Regional Chamber, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, the American Civil Lliberties Union, ReMerge, the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition and Women in Recovery.
Some of the prominent leaders supporting the effort, and who spoke in support of the initiative at the launch event at the Capitol building, include Jonathan Small (Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs), Gene Rainbolt (Chairman, BancFirst Corp.), state Rep. George E. Young, Sr., D-Oklahoma City, Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, Adam Luck (Right on Crime), and David Blatt (Oklahoma Policy Institute).
“Aside from the moral argument for reforming our state’s criminal justice system, this is also important to our state’s economic future,” said Jonathan Small, president of OCPA.
“We can’t continue to waste money on a system that does not achieve our intended results, and this proposed ballot initiative aligns with a conservative approach that will give resources and control back to our local communities.”
“For too long, Oklahoma’s taxpayers have spent millions of dollars incarcerating our citizens, without addressing the conditions that lead people to commit crimes in the first place,” said Clay Bennett, owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chairman of Dorchester Capital Corporation.
“Taxpayer resources would be better invested in rehabilitating low-level offenders through treatment and job training so they are able to obtain jobs and contribute to our economy. I am proud to join with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform to push for reforms that will allow us to spend taxpayer money more efficiently and to improve our citizens’ quality of life.”
The Ballot Initiatives
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform will use the power of the ballot initiative to take a smarter approach to public safety by pursuing a two-pronged solution. Two proposals (State Questions 780 and 781) will enter the field with organizers planning to use both paid and volunteer petition-gatherers, Speaker Steele told reporters.
One ballot initiative reclassifies certain low-level offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. By reclassifying these offenses, Oklahoma is able to trigger cost savings from decreased corrections spending.
A second ballot initiative invests those cost 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 go untreated in prison, and education and job training programs to help low-level offenders turn their lives around, find employment, and avoid going back to prison.
“Reforming our current approach to criminal justice will have a profound positive impact on our families and our communities,” said Dr. Hance Dilbeck, Senior Pastor of Quail Springs Baptist Church and President of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. “We all have a moral responsibility to address this issue. We must offer individuals battling addiction a second chance at life so they can reach their full God-given potential.”
“Spending nearly half a billion dollars a year to imprison people does nothing to address the underlying conditions like mental health and addiction which send many individuals to prison in the first place,” said Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa. “Our legislature is working hard to address mandatory minimums of low-level offenders, and alternatives to incarceration while ensuring public safety. These ballot initiatives will complement our efforts.”
“The current criminal justice system’s reliance on felony convictions has turned too many of our fellow Oklahomans into second-class citizens who have a hard time finding employment and are unable to fully participate in civic life,” said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma and former Member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Kiesel, a Democrat, said in a prepared statement, “Not only do these particular Oklahomans bear a significant burden, their families and communities also feel the impact. This initiative represents an historic opportunity to refocus our collective energies toward the common goal of making our communities safer.”
The campaign will begin to collect signatures from voters across the state in the coming weeks, with the goal of collecting 86,000 signatures to ensure the initiative is included on the November ballot. More information about the initiative, and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, can be found on its website at OKJusticeReform.org. Updates on the coalition’s efforts can also be seen on Twitter at @OKJusticeReform and on Facebook at /OKJusticeReform.