Smart reforms to unshackle Oklahoma

Smart reforms to unshackle Oklahoma

The State Chamber of Oklahoma recently announced its support for a package of criminal justice bills making their way through the Legislature.

These bills, which seek to safely reduce the number of incarcerated Oklahomans, are backed by a diverse coalition including the governor, criminal justice reform advocates, district attorneys and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.

Our state incarcerates women at the highest rate in the country, more than double the national average. Oklahoma currently has the second-highest rate of male incarceration and is edging toward first place. These distinctions are particularly embarrassing since our high incarceration rate does not discernably improve the safety of our citizens. A 2017 Right on Crime study found 84 percent of Oklahomans agree we should shorten prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.

With precipitously high incarceration levels expected to rise over the next decade and ballooning incarceration costs, we must act swiftly. For the fiscal year that starts July 1, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has requested more than $1.5 billion, a dramatic increase over last year. Anyone tracking our state’s budget issues knows how problematic that request is.

The reforms in this package would lower sentencing and incarceration rates among non-violent offenders, especially those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. The bills also create tiered offenses for property crimes and a new system for classifying burglary. Keeping in mind the importance of public safety, these bills smartly focus on helping integrate non-violent offenders back into society and the workforce. Just as importantly, the compromise package creates the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee to study and make recommendations to the Legislature on future modifications to our criminal code. This long-term view of the criminal justice system is much needed.

Excessive use of incarceration takes an immense toll on Oklahoma families and businesses. When we lock up droves of Oklahomans, we reduce our state’s workforce. And when Oklahomans are behind bars for extended periods, they cannot meaningfully contribute to our society or economy.

If we want strong families, a thriving economy and a more robust workforce, we need to reduce our dependence on incarceration and protracted sentencing while maintaining public safety.

Oklahoma should continue to explore ways to reduce our incarceration rate. But this package of reforms is an invaluable step forward. It’s time for Oklahoma to finally break its overreliance on incarceration and implement smart, viable criminal justice reform.

Column by Fred Morgan, President and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, published in The Journal Record on March 16, 2018

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