By Brad Henry
People throughout the country are aware of Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate. We know that a criminal justice system should seek justice and achieve restoration, not cost millions of taxpayers’ dollars, damage families and fail to rehabilitate people convicted of nonviolent crimes.
Yet, this is exactly what Oklahoma’s excessive sentences for nonviolent offenses do.
Although we have taken meaningful, bipartisan steps toward reform in recent years, there is still work to do. As a former governor of Oklahoma, I have seen the flaws of excessive sentencing for nonviolent crimes firsthand.
State Question 805 is a moderate, bipartisan approach to ending disproportionate sentences, restoring families and saving taxpayers millions.
This reform would end the use of sentence extension penalties for repeat nonviolent crimes. Prosecutors could still seek the maximum punishment set by legislators, but they won’t be able to use past mistakes against someone to add years past that maximum.
Empirical data indicates – and citizens from both the right and the left can see – that there is no added value or safety in excessive sentences for nonviolent offenses.
As the adage goes, “let the punishment fit the crime.” With excessive sentence penalties, the punishment doesn’t fit – it is often unfair. For example, an Oklahoma woman was sentenced to life in prison for selling drugs to pay her son’s medical bills. Her young son passed away during her incarceration. The system sought punishment instead of rehabilitation, and a child suffered without his mother as a result.
Prisons are often called “correctional facilities,” but in order to “correct” we must address the root cause behind unwanted behavior. Unfortunately, current policies disproportionately focus on punishment, with little intention of helping the individual move beyond a troubled past.
With the millions saved from enacting SQ 805, Oklahoma would be able to direct money toward programs that help people battle addiction, mental illness and unresolved trauma. We can connect people with services that empower them to be healthy, contributing citizens.
People convicted of crimes should be held accountable. However, it is possible to provide proper accountability that considers prior offenses without arbitrarily applying extra years, decades or even a life term to a sentence.
SQ 805 would not limit prosecutors’ abilities to ensure that justice is served. Instead, it gives direction and creates a standard that applies to everyone regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic circumstances or geographic location.
We need to take a close, hard look at our criminal justice system. In Oklahoma, we have a system that sends too many nonviolent offenders to prison for far too long, rather than a system that is equitable and just.
On Nov. 3, please vote yes on SQ 805 to take a step closer to real justice.
Brad Henry served as the 26th Governor of Oklahoma from 2003—2011.