By Kris Steele
We have a broken criminal justice system.
Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the country for women and the second-highest overall rate. Oklahomans spend $515 million a year to pay for corrections — a cost that has grown by 172 percent over the past two decades. Our prisons are overcrowded, and the continued rate of growth of our prison population and the associated costs are unsustainable.
According to our Department of Corrections, for the past decade, more than 70 percent of annual prison admissions have been people whose only or most serious crime of conviction was a nonviolent offense. For 2015, 81 percent of low-level drug offenders (non-trafficking) sentenced to prison had no prior violent convictions. In other words, we are locking up people who are better served through supervision and rehabilitation in the community.
Charting a smarter approach to low-level offenses offers a more effective use of state resources. In Oklahoma, it costs roughly $19,000 per year to incarcerate someone, compared to about $6,000 for community-based treatment and supervision. Further, a felony record closes doors to education, employment and housing. It destabilizes families and significantly increases the risk of involvement with the criminal justice system for children of parents with felony records.
State Questions 780 and 781 reduce incarceration costs and redirect the savings to proven strategies for breaking the cycle of crime, such as treatment, mental health care and job training.
These reforms are modeled after successful reforms in other states. In 2007 Texas faced a similar choice, either spend substantial amounts constructing prison beds, or implement diversionary reforms. Texas invested in diversionary reforms, saving over $3 billion in nine years with reductions in the prison population – all with better safety outcomes.
Drug manufacturing, distribution and possession with intent to distribute remain felonies regardless of quantity. Prosecutors can still charge a person caught with the date rape drug with possession with intent to distribute, as the primary use for this drug is to distribute and cause harm to another person. Changing the sentence for simple possession doesn’t change the nature of the evidence necessary to prove intent to distribute.
Some argue that reducing possession from a felony to a misdemeanor will empty our drug courts. But, we’ve had a law authorizing misdemeanor drug courts on the books since 2008. We already understand that fear of a felony conviction is not what encourages participation in drug court – it’s the coupling of meaningful rehabilitative resources with swift, certain and fair sanctions for violations.
Misdemeanors carry up to a year in jail. Research confirms that when imposed quickly after discovery of a violation, shorter sanctions – short stays in jail – are much more effective in modifying behavior than long periods of imprisonment. Plus, they do not disrupt treatment, employment or create felony records that erect barriers to education and employment.
Oklahomans understand the importance of investing in effective programs and effective policy. State Questions 780 and 781 sidestep political gridlock, take the politics out of prosecution and redirect resources toward helping individuals become productive community members.
NOTE: Kris Steele is chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.