OKLAHOMA CITY – Criminal justice reform advocates from around the state gathered at the State Capitol on Wednesday (May 11) to urge legislators to advance the remaining Justice Reform Task Force bills, developed through the work of a panel chosen by Governor Mary Fallin, this session.
Advocates say that passage of the bills will save the state nearly $2 billion and avoid building additional prisons to house the state’s growing prison population, which is expected to rise by 25 percent in the next 10 years without further action.
“We’re here for a simple reason – we don’t want to be No. 1,” said Kris Steele, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform chairman. “We’re currently at No. 2 for state incarceration rates, and a new projection shows we’ll be No. 1 next year without action at the Capitol this year. However, there’s hope. Sen. Greg Treat and Rep. Terry O’Donnell are carrying game-changing reform bills that are almost to the finish line. If these reform bills get important components restored and pass, we’re not going to be No. 1. We’ll finally start moving in the right direction.”
The bills must be advanced in the coming days to meet legislative deadlines. Many are currently in conference committees or awaiting floor action.
The rally drew several hundred activists to the fourth floor rotunda in the Capitol Building. Speakers included Rhonda Bear, who told her story of overcoming challenges in the criminal justice system, former state Rep. Joe Dorman, and Timothy Tardibono, president of the Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma (FPIO).
Speaking of his “conservative, pro-family” group, Tardibono said “Our mission could not be more aligned with the issue of criminal justice reform. … We’re totally supportive of this Coalition, these task force bills and are urging that they be sent to the governor.
Tardibono gave several reasons for his group’s long-standing involvement in criminal justice reform issues: “First, our state’s high incarceration rate of women who are non-violent drug offenders destabilizes families across the state because women are usually the hub of the family. We already know that a majority of these women are mothers usually with multiple children. So when you move that key family hub into prison or jail for an extended period of time, the children are sent to relatives or to foster care and that stability children need is further undermined.
“Second, we know that mothers who need treatment are not likely to get it in prison or jail. So they will be released back into the community without the tools they need to succeed as mothers.
“Third, we know that children of incarcerated parents are susceptible to a myriad of negative social consequences from low educational achievement or dropping out to substance abuse and eventually to ending up in the same prison cycle their mother is in.
“These children struggle through a host of emotional challenges. They are likely to blame themselves for their mother being in jail. They are likely to worry about whether their mother will be safe in jail. They might not have the ability to see their mother very regularly because they are not in a facility close to their home or the child’s temporary caregivers might not be able to take them to see their mother. But even if they can see them, is a few hours a month in prison or jail visiting area any type of suitable place for a mother to raise a child?
“This is not sustainable for families in our state and we need to reverse this trend during this legislative session.
“As we approach Mother’s Day, I can think of no better time for these bills to be sent to the Governor so she can sign them and give these mothers a real gift, the gift to be what they were designed to be, healthy, stable mothers. These beautiful children cannot afford to wait any longer. The Governor needs these bills on her desk this month.”
Dropping by to add his voice to the cheers echoing around the Capitol dome was state Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma City. Young joined former House Speaker Steele, R-Shawnee, when historic ballot propositions were submitted to Secretary of State Chris Benge in 2016. Ultimately those measures shifting some non-violent offenses to misdemeanor (rather than felony) status were enacted with strong voter approval in November 2016.
“All the talk at the Capitol is about the budget right now, and understandably so. We should not forget that criminal justice is a budget issue – one of the biggest budget issues out there by a mile,” Steele said in comments to the crowd at the Capitol.
“Inaction this year on criminal justice reform creates a $1.9 billion unfunded mandate over the next 10 years for prison growth we can’t afford that does not make us safer.”
Advocates of reform contend that studies show that if no action is taken in this legislative session, the state will be required to build two new prisons at an $850 million price tag. This would only increase the state’s incarceration rate, which was 78 percent higher than the national average in 2015. Since 1991,
Oklahoma has had the highest female imprisonment rate in the country. These trends have placed an enormous burden on Oklahoma taxpayers, who now spend more than half a billion dollars on corrections a year.
“The cost of inaction is not fiscally responsible and it is not the best path for public safety,” Steele said. “The better path for safety and taxpayers is in the criminal justice task force bills the Legislature is so close to passing. Legislators are doing noble work on this hard issue, and we have their backs. Criminal justice reform just had great success at the polls in November, and it is very close to having great success at the Capitol, too.”
The Oklahoma state prison system now has a population of 28,580, putting state facilities at 109 percent of capacity. Without reform, analysts project a population of 35,798 in ten years. With reform (assuming a “glide path” that matches the experience in Texas and other states that have enacted significant reforms, the population could decline slightly, to 26,688, over the coming decade.
Sponsor of the rally was Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, described in its literature as “a coalition of community leaders and experts from across the state working to implement State Questions 780 and 781, reduce the prison population, save money and make Oklahoma communities safer by addressing the root causes of crime. It is comprised of some of Oklahoma’s most prominent faith leaders, law enforcement, elected officials, health professionals and business leaders.”
More information is available at okjusticereform.org.
Note: Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.