By Joe Dorman
A certain Thursday late last month (April 26) was a very interesting day at the Oklahoma state Capitol, and one that I will remember for quite a long time. I had the pleasure of attending the press conference and bill signing for five criminal justice reform measures.
These bills, while highly debated over the past two years, actually had their origins while I served as a member of the Legislature. They were a part of a package brought forth in 2012 by then-Speaker Kris Steele, a Republican legislator from Shawnee.
I was proud to be a supporter of criminal justice reform back then, just as I am now. My brother-in-law, a former prison ministries worker, was a passionate and knowledgeable advocate for reform, and he reminded me often how this issue touches every family in Oklahoma.
Kids, especially, are deeply impacted by criminal justice policies, which is why OICA considers these reforms a top priority. Sending a parent to prison is one of the most traumatizing things one can do to his or her child. Offering rehabilitation and treatment to a non-violent parent who has run afoul of the law is considerably better then creating a broken home.
Speaker Steele understood that and worked hard to pass a comprehensive package to reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rates. Unfortunately, the criminal justice reform measures he championed were not implemented or properly funded, and they were eventually removed from law.
This generated the effort to pass State Questions 780 and 781, two ballot initiatives emphasizing rehabilitation and non-felony sentences for drug arrests. Both measures were approved by wide margins. The legislation passed last month is designed to ensure the implementation of those State Questions is successful and to help deliver a reduction in the vast number of Oklahomans sent to prison.
That reduction is essential because Oklahoma is in danger of becoming a prison state. We rank first in the nation in female incarceration, second overall with male incarceration and we incarcerate more of our residents per capita than any other state.
Criminal justice reform, which encompasses both the state questions and last month’s follow-up legislation, will help reduce those numbers and help more families stay together and more children grow up with parents. OICA will soon release data compiled in partnership with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform which convincingly demonstrate that without these reforms, future generations of Oklahomans could be locked into an unbreakable cycle of increasing incarceration rates.
I mentioned that the bill signing was interesting, and I want to clarify that. In the room, we had Governor Mary Fallin, along with myself and former Lieutenant Governor Jari Askins, her two former opponents in the races for Oklahoma Governor in 2010 and 2014.
We also had present current Republican and Democratic legislators, along with District Attorneys and persons in recovery who were prosecuted by those officials. We had people from all across the political spectrum coming together to find compromise and consensus in order to solve a problem. This was a shining example of how our system of government can and should work.
I hope that this spirit continues with other policies that will improve Oklahoma for our children. I can promise you that OICA will be there to try and make this so.
Editor’s Note: A former state representative from Rush Springs, Dorman now runs the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA). He advocated for the tax increases that passed the Legislature this past legislative session. This commentary is adapted from a blog posted in early May.