By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
Proponents of State Questions 780 and 781, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, have scheduled a series of town hall meetings throughout the state during August. Their goal is to inform voters about the two initiatives appearing on the November 8 election ballot.
Led by former House Speaker Kris Steele, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is a coalition of individuals and organizations working to pass the two state questions in order to “reduce the prison population, save money and make Oklahoma communities safer, by addressing the root causes of crime and helping perpetrators of low-level offenses turn their lives around.”
Coalition members include ACLU of Oklahoma, Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma, George Kaiser Family Foundation, Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, Mental Health Association Oklahoma, Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC), Oklahoma Policy Institute, Oklahoma Right on Crime, The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), The Oklahoma Academy, Women in Recovery and the Tulsa Work Force.
The town hall series began earlier this month at East Central University in Ada. Speakers included former governor Brad Henry; State Rep. George Young, Danielle Ezel, Executive Director, Oklahoma Women’s Coalition; and Kris Steele, now executive director of TEEM. The event was hosted by OCC Vice-president, the Rev. Dr. Victor McCullough.
“If you don’t get help for these issues, the cycle continues – It is a giant revolving door,” Gov. Henry said during the Ada town hall. “Let’s close the revolving door and keep prisons for violent offenders.”
A second town hall, held at Northern Oklahoma College in Enid, was hosted by Bert Mackie, Vice Chairman, Security National Bank in Enid and Asset Manager from Hamm Capital. It featured Kris Steele, John Groendyke, CEO, Groendyke Transport; former Judge William Kellough, 14th Judicial District, Criminal Felony Docket; and Meagan Gaddis, a ReMerge program graduate.
ReMerge is a female diversion program designed to transform pregnant women and mothers facing incarceration into productive community citizens.
“State Questions 780 & 781 are a step in the right direction,” said Groendyke. “I have helped people in high school with incarcerated parents – without a support system and help, people can’t make it.”
Judge Kellough told the Enid audience, “State Question 781 will provide community funding in a very meaningful way. I put 30 to 40 women in the Women in Recovery program… I run into these women in businesses and in society. They are productive community members.”
Advocates for SQ 780 and 781 contend that these measures will give Oklahomans a “better return on their tax investment by reducing the number of people in Oklahoma’s prisons and investing the savings in community-based rehabilitation programs.”
Gaddis said, “I was addicted to meth and I stole to support my habit. I had the opportunity to participate in ReMerge and I don’t know where I would be without it. I have a 7 year old and 8 year old, they are with me and I don’t know where they would be without my treatment.”
The next town hall will be held on Thursday, August 11 at the University of Tulsa College of Law, Price & Turpen Courtroom, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The host will be Zack Stoycoff of Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce. The scheduled speakers are H.E. (Gene) Rainbolt, Chairman of BancFirst Corp.; Larry Morris, Retired U.S. Chief Probation Officer; Heather Langley, Women in Recovery and Kris Steele.
Felder wrote that SQ 780, which reduces sentencing requirements for certain drug and property offenses, was supported by seventy-five percent of respondents.
“The unique thing about State Question 780 and State Question 781 is the diversity in widespread support behind these initiatives,” said Steele. “We have rock solid conservative leaders, think tanks and individuals behind these reforms, along with individuals who would be perceived as more moderate or liberal. For some it’s a matter of fiscal responsibility, and for others it’s a matter of social justice.
Felder also reported that SQ 781, which would use cost savings from reclassifying misdemeanors to fund rehabilitative programs, received 71 percent support in the SoonerPoll.
Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country and is the nation’s leader in female incarceration.
“People with felony convictions are excluded from employment opportunities and come out with tremendous fees and fines,” Steele said. “We are taking State Questions 780 & 781 directly to the people to get around political gridlock.”
Upcoming OCRJ town hall meetings will be held on Thursday, August 18, at Eastern Oklahoma State College main auditorium, 1301 W. Main St, in McAlester; on Tuesday, August 23, at Oklahoma City University School of Law, Room 509, Auditorium, 800 N. Harvey Ave, in Oklahoma City; and on Thursday, August 25, at Cameron University, Shepler Center, Wichita Room, 2800 W. Gore Blvd, in Lawton.