Criminal justice reform a hot topic at legislative forum

"Oklahoma incarcerates about 1,079 per 100,000 of our residents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative study that’s received attention recently. That includes people in state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, Indian Country jails, juvenile justice, and otherwise held by the justice system. When counting only adults, our incarceration rate is even higher: 1,300 out of every 100,000 adults, or 1.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. " - Oklahoma Policy Institute

Finding ways to decrease the number of people imprisoned in Oklahoma sparked a strong reaction Friday among audience members and Stillwater's state legislative delegation during the monthly forum hosted by the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee.

District 35 Rep. Ty Burns, R-Morrison, said there are multiple bills under consideration that address criminal justice reform and have had their titles stripped from them. He expects many of those bills to be combined into something that addresses Oklahoma’s incarceration rate, the highest in the U.S., which leads the world in incarceration.

In other words, at 1,079 people locked up per 100,000 of the population, Oklahoma leads the world in incarceration with a rate that is almost twice the U.S. national average of 698 and almost 10 times the rate for many European and Scandinavian countries.

Oklahoma overtook Louisiana to claim the title after that state passed a criminal justice reform package in 2017.

One audience member said Oklahoma has largely “whittled at the edges” in an attempt to slow its prison population's growth but needs to do much more if it even wants to bring our number down to the national average.

The legislators acknowledged that there are no quick fixes.

“It’s a marathon,” Burns said. “It starts in the schools.”

Burns, who represents a very conservative district, appeared to be in favor of reforms but said he worries about the state making it too easy on criminals.

“They made meth a misdemeanor,” he said. “Meth.”

A member of the audience said there are ways to do it. He cited Texas as a state that has closed eight prisons while reducing its crime rate.

Sen. Tom Dugger, R-Stillwater, says it’s not just about letting more people out, it’s also about addressing recidivism to keep people from going back in.

It’s about balance, he said. You want to let people out but you don’t want to let violent people out.

District 33 Rep. John Talley, R-Stillwater, who has taken college athletes to visit state prisons as part of a prison ministry for at least two decades, says he sees the skills training that was once available to give inmates a trade and a way to earn a living after they were released, reduced to almost nothing because of cuts to the state’s technical education system.

Burns agreed, saying he advocated for a measure that will increase that funding from $12 million to $21 million.

Talley said changes to the parole system that would give people under Department of Corrections supervision options to take mandatory drug test and check in with their parole officers either before or after standard business hours.

Employers lose patience with someone who has to take a drug test from 8-10 a.m. on a work day, then is given an appointment to see their parole officer at 1:30 p.m but possibly has to wait all afternoon to be seenl, he said. He’s had employers say former inmates would have a better shot at getting and keeping good jobs if they could work a regular schedule.

A victim advocate from Wings of Hope Family Crisis Center said she sees many women at the shelter who have experienced trauma due to violence or sexual assault that led to them using drugs. As a result they have criminal records that limit their employment opportunities and they owe fines and fees “out the wazoo” that hamper their ability to get on their financial feet.

The state and the women would benefit from a greater focus on prevention and intervention programs, she said, likening it to preventative medicine being less expensive than treating a disease that has allowed to advance.

The Chamber of Commerce will host its next Legislative Breakfast on April 26.

 Twitter: @mcharlesNP