COMMENTARY Red and blue all over: ‘We, the people’ before we the government
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Published: 27-Nov-2013

OKLAHOMA CITY – This community is well on its way to duplicating an acclaimed Tulsa program aiming to keep first- and second-time female offenders out of prison.

In April, an emotional and upbeat first graduation ceremony for “ReMerge” drew a large crowd to the state History Center northeast of the state Capitol. These few months later, the group is hitting its stride.

ReMerge and Tulsa’s Women in Recovery demonstrate the effectiveness of treatment and accountability in place of long sentences for at least some nonviolent offenders.

Both programs are gaining success by collaborating with other private-sector organizations, while working closely with local governments, especially the judiciary and law enforcement.

The groups are carving out a stellar reputation for offering women an alternative to prison and helping them lead productive lives as citizens, taxpayers and better family members.

“Many come from dysfunctional families where one or both parents also were addicted to drugs or alcohol, struggle with mental health issues or were divorced or incarcerated, ReMerge Director Terri Woodland said. “Most have no means of transportation, no safe place to live, poor work history and no income.”

In many cases, “women enter the criminal justice system differently than men,” Woodland said.

“Recognizing the barriers women face when raising children alone, we can provide appropriate treatment and services to increase the chances of success for each participant and subsequently, break the cycle of inter-generational incarceration,” she said.

Modeling on the success of Women in Recovery, ReMerge staff anticipates working with a woman for one year — sometimes more, sometimes less.

These are particularly worthy programs, but this kind of thing goes on every day in America, with or without the prompting of government. It happens in both voluntary associations and in public-private partnerships that keep things more efficient than they would be if channeled through government action alone. 

If the travails of women and men incarcerated seem a frequent point of reference here, that is for reasons both moral and practical. 

Moral: The Sooner State incarcerates more women than any state in America, and is in the top five for imprisonment rates overall. Many of these women are held for long terms for nonviolent crimes. 

Practical: Even in states with wiser correctional policies, prison spending drives government spending. In most states, only Medicaid spending (with or without the Affordable Care Act) is growing faster than spending on jails.

For this writer, it brings to mind a law of nature and of our Maker: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9 New International Version). 

The great French writer Alexis de Tocqueville bequeathed us trenchant observations about the American spirit that resonate still.
In one rarely quoted passage from his 1830s book, “Democracy in America,” he captures our nature, a fragile interdependence that, paradoxically, leavens the heart of independence:

“All [Americans] feel themselves to be subject to the same weakness and the same dangers, and their interest as well as their sympathy makes it a law for them to lend each other mutual assistance when in need.”

That spirit might seem absent in modern America, but perhaps we’re not looking with a clear focus.

Jane Alexander, the film and stage actress, was chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts during the Clinton presidency. As such, she often advanced policies that were rather blue for a red state like Oklahoma.

During an interview in the mid-1990s, she waxed eloquent over the Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City. What took her breath away was the astonishing volunteer spirit she had discerned, studied, and ultimately documented.
 Alexander related to me how taken aback she was after first hearing organizers explain how the Festival had become a stunning success, year in and year out, despite a modest budget when compared to similar events in other cities and states.

She listened, as sponsors narrated their lessons learned, including development of the event’s legendary corps of “5,000 volunteers.” She stopped them, she remembered, and asked, “What number did you say?” She made them repeat the figure.

When she told me the story, it was of course delivered with captivating wit and charm. Her purpose was serious: that number was, and is, so amazing that people elsewhere doubted her when she shared the figure.

At the heart of that story of 5,000 volunteers in my home town lies a way to rethink many government activities, both when the state of the nation is robust, and in times of economic stress.

Oklahoma is a relatively poor state, but our people are generous and selfless. Peter Dolese, director of the Arts Festival for several years, once told me, “We basically have 3,500 to 5,000 people every year who believe it is their event. The general public in Oklahoma ‘owns’ the Festival of the Arts. At the top of that pyramid are around 350 people scattered across 50 working committees, each of them with a dozen or more volunteers. They make it work, and save countless dollars in the process.” 

Divisions among Americans now seem so profound and seemingly intractable. Still, there is something instructive in Jane Alexander’s observations about volunteer support for the arts in Oklahoma, reddest of the red states, and in similar stories from “blue Hawaii” and sunny Kansas to our north, shared here recently

Across the land are the kinds of Americans that Alexis de Tocqueville admired, and would still understood.

They don’t wait on government when action is needed to help a worthy cause, or when neighbors need a hand up more than a hand out.

Whether the worthy cause in question is finding a better way to treat nonviolent offenders, supporting artistic endeavors or nearly anything else doing, we the people can do it better than we the government.

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