Broad coalition presses for historic criminal justice reform in Oklahoma

(Second of two articles on the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform campaign)

OKLAHOMA CITY – With signatures totaling more than 220,000 names on a pair of proposed ballot initiatives, chances are that Oklahoman’s will vote on State Questions 780 and 781 this November. 
In addition to the broad success in signature-gathering, the proposals have garnered bipartisan, conservative and liberal leadership support.
A trio of conservative leaders attended the petition submission in June to support campaign leaders Kris Steele, a Republican and former Speaker of the state House, and Ryan Kiesel, a Democrat who served in the Legislature and is now executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-Oklahoma).
The initiatives “will keep Oklahoma’s mothers closer to their children while they recover and rehabilitate,” said Timothy Tardibono, president at the Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma (FPIO). Taking note of the Sooner State’s unenviable position as the number state for female incarceration, he observed, “Every child needs their mom and dad and State Questions 780 and 781 are smarter ways for Oklahoma to keep families together that are currently being broken. State Questions 780 and 781 are smart policies both economically and for families. Even a modest improvement in Oklahoma’s marriage and family stability rate will improve child well-being and success, substantially reduce government costs, and improve the economy. State Questions 780 and 781 will be a step in the right direction to better family stability in Oklahoma.”
Leading the ballot campaign is the group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, which Steele leads. 
At a recent ceremony opening a Tulsa campaign office for the organization, Steele commented, “Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country and the highest incarceration rate for women.”
According to a summary from Steele’s staff at the group, “State Question 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. By reclassifying these offenses, Oklahoma is able to trigger cost savings from decreased corrections spending.
“Second, Question 781 would then invest those cost savings into addressing the root causes of crime through rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior and go untreated in prison, and education and job training programs to help people find employment, and avoid going back to prison.”

Incarceration costs taxpayers about $500 million annually. Steele observes, “Instead of paying about $19,000 per year on average to incarcerate an individual and really not ever address what needs to be addressed in that person’s life, we could spend on average about $6,000 per year on treatment and supervision in the community and produce much better results,” Steele said. 
In discussion with The City Sentinel after joining the delegation turning in ballot petitions Tardibono observed, “This is one of those issues that I think needs a social conservative and pro-family perspective. I think it’s right that we have to be smart on crime especially with the overcrowding problem we have right now.
“Something has to change and I think this is a reasonable place ‘compassionate conservatives’ can support. Plus, putting a non-violent mother in long-term prison is not a smart move for that family when community treatment is a much better solution.”
Adam Luck of “Right on Crime – Oklahoma” helped push to passage a quartet of new laws approved at the Legislature this year which analysts consider the most significant forward movement in four years to jump-start the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) template pioneered by former House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, during his time in the legislature’s lower chamber. 
Trent England, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), has long supported the right on crime approach, advocated for decades by analysts at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. 
In response to a question from The City Sentinel, England reflected, “We’re glad to be part of this coalition of thoughtful Oklahoman’s who are focused on the future of our state and the safety and the strength of our communities.
“Many people don’t know it, but one of the first state policy reform efforts after the adoption of the United States Constitution was actually efforts in the state of Pennsylvania to reform their criminal laws and criminal punishment. Benjamin Rush was one of America’s Founders, but he was also a leading voice for making sure that the punishment actually fit the crime and trying to create ways to reform and not just Warehouse potentially productive citizens.”
OCPA is the state’s largest public policy research organization, advocating economic liberty and limited government. 
On the more liberal or progressive end of the spectrum, state Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, spoke to a crowd of supporters at the petition submission, outside the office of Secretary of State Chris Benge. Then, Young joined Steele, Kiesel and other in the bipartisan leadership group that turned in the initiative petitions.
In dialogue with The City Sentinel, Rep. Young reflected, “In light of our most recent political debate, better known as the budget process, I am truly excited and enter into this movement with high expectations.
“One of the top five line items on our budget is the Department of Corrections (DOC).  These two ballot initiative impact not only the economic well-being and future of our State in a positive way, but what motivates me is the fact they will put a premium on our greatest asset, people, and not prisons. We have the beginning of real rehabilitation and not just incarceration debilitation.  We are better and these questions when passed will show that Oklahoma is really a great State.”
In a follow up exchange, Rep. Young expanded his thoughts, telling this reporter, “I am concerned about the negative impact and hardship that is experienced, disproportionately, in the district and community I represent by the current laws and sentencing. The budget problem has not been solved, only put off until next year.
“These two ballot questions, when passed, will be examples of smart moves – not only on crime, but also on exercising our fiduciary responsibility as stewards of state resources. I see the connection of those current laws and the impact of those current laws as part of our failing education system.
“The resources projected from these initiatives will help in mental health and substance abuse treatments. Thus will help in more attention being able to focus on our schools. This starting point will be helpful in addressing some issues in education and health.”
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, directed by David Blatt and based in Tulsa, is considered the state’s leading liberal “think tank” focused on state government. Blatt’s group has long advocated broad reform of the Sooner State’s prison system, and changes to make punishment for non-violent crimes less onerous. 
Another speaker outside Benge’s office was Natasha Purnell, graduate of the ReMerge program based in Oklahoma City. Ms. Purnell described her past life as a drug user and convicted offender. Thanks to ReMerge – an intensive and lengthy program credited with transforming the lives of dozens of formerly incarcerated non-violent female offenders – Purnell says she developed “the necessary tools to understand my addiction and learn to live a fulfilling life without drugs.
“My sobriety date is April 30, 2013. I have been clean and sober now for 3 years. I now hold a full-time job as a peer recovery support specialist at NorthCare [in Oklahoma City]. I have been reunited with my son and my family, I give back to my community by helping others struggling with addiction, and I am a productive, tax-paying citizen.” 
Secretary of State and Native American Affairs Chris Benge, whose office handles the first wrong of approval for ballot initiatives, said in a press release last week that S.Q. 780 “would reclassify certain low-level offenses, such as drug possession and some property crimes, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. SQ 781 would create an account with the money saved from having fewer offenders incarcerated. Those funds would be used to operate programs that treat drug addiction and mental health issues.”
Benge’s office “counted a total of 111,159 [signatures] for proposed SQ 780 and 110,135 signatures for proposed SQ 781. Such initiatives require 65,987 signatures to be put on the November ballot. That equates to 8 percent of 824,831, the total number of ballots cast in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
“As required by law, the secretary of state’s office sent a report on its findings to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court will determine whether there are sufficient signatures to place the proposals on a ballot.”