The turning point Oklahoma’s criminal justice system has sought for so long is finally within reach.
In an election season of unprecedented divisiveness, unity emerged in Oklahoma when an incredibly diverse coalition joined together and secured passage of a better path for our overburdened criminal justice system.
The political spectrum’s right and left, government officials and business executives, faith and community leaders, law enforcement and mental health professionals – all forged together to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.
Passage of State Questions 780 and 781 put Oklahoma on the map for the right reasons on election night.
We united because, as Oklahomans, we all understand the effects of over-incarceration. Whether through families, friends, colleagues or shared tax contributions to the state treasury, Oklahomans realize that over-incarceration of offenders who commit low-level offenses often leads to unintended and undesirable outcomes.
Our state's dubious criminal justice statistics are well-known.
One in 12 Oklahomans has been or currently is incarcerated. We are consistently a national leader in incarceration rates, our prisons are routinely over capacity and underfunded – it’s a story told year after year.
However, on November 8, the story started to change.
Oklahomans voted to reclassify certain nonviolent offenses – like simple drug possession and low-level property offenses – as misdemeanors, freeing up tens of millions of dollars a year to reinvest in more drug and mental health treatment.
But the story’s ending is not written yet. The real work has just started.
Nothing will change if the improvements voters endorsed are not properly implemented and expanded. As exciting as the general election victory was, successful implementation will be an even bigger lift than succeeding at the polls.
Thankfully, these issues are now carried by the voices of the 800,000 citizens who voted to support them.
As a former legislator, I cannot underscore the value enough of voter validation that a smarter approach to crime is not only desired, but safe for elected officials to discuss. In the past, fear of supporting policies deemed as “soft on crime,” which S.Q.s 780 and 781 were certainly not, caused some elected officials pause. That fear can now be gone.
As the state begins implementation, our coalition will continue operating with a spirit of unity and inclusiveness. We are ready to collaborate with the governor, legislators, district attorneys, judges, law enforcement, counties, state agencies and other stakeholders whose perspectives matter and will be critical to success. Fulfilling the peoples’ will is going to require cooperation and trust among all stakeholders, and we are fully committed to our end of that bargain.
Implementation will be a complex, lengthy process, but the outcomes will be tremendous.
In the future, when incarceration rates decline, the prison population drops and more Oklahomans get treatment instead of prison time, the state can claim success.
But not until then. For now, we must continue the work voters have mandated Oklahoma finally start.
Note: Kris Steele is chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.