‘Convicted’ – Kris Steele on veterans, corrections, colleagues and vision

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 10-Nov-2010

CapitolBeatOK nabbed 20 minutes of time from Speaker-elect Kris Steele on the eve of Veterans Day. He was in a reflective mood:

“My Granddad is one of the most influential persons in my life. My personality was formed, in many ways, by him. He is a formidable man who cares deeply for the United States of America. So, the natural respect and pride I have for those who have defended our freedoms is merely enhanced and deepened by my knowledge of the kind of man who fought for our country in world War II.

“When Veterans Day rolls around, I will generally have a conversation with my ‘Pop Pop.’ He recently took a trip with my colleague, Rep. Gary Banz, on the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., where he saw the World War II Memorial. It was the first time he had ever been to Washington. That was a special opportunity for him. I am so proud of the leadership of Rep. Banz to do something like that, and deeply proud of the character of my ‘Pop Pop.’”

When he met with Capitol reporters last week, the Shawnee Republican said there were a few matters on which he was “convicted” to act.

During the interview held in his Capitol office today (Wednesday, November 10),  Steele was asked to elaborate his views on certain matters, especially crime, punishment and Corrections policy. He responded:

“I am an Evangelical Christian, and an associate pastor at my home church, Wesley United Methodist Church in Shawnee.

“It is written on my heart to be concerned about the way we treat those who are in our prisons, who have committed crimes, and how they should be treated as a result. For years, I’ve heard people talk about Oklahoma’s high incarceration rates for women. In the House of Representatives, we had an Interim Study two years ago. I learned that not only are we at twice the national average for incarceration of women but that 68% of the women we incarcerate are non-violent and/or low risk offenders.

“To be clear on this, there ought to be consequences for actions. I just want to be sure we are focused like a laser on what works and what doesn’t work in terms of consequences for offenses.

“When as a state, as a government, we put an individual in prison for 12-14 months who is not necessarily a danger or a threat to public safety, is that the best policy? I’ve been in the Legislature for 10 years, and I’m at the start of my last two years before term limits. Every year, we deal with the Corrections issues. This year, we will have to tackle a requested supplemental for Corrections immediately. Mind you, we’ll have to do that merely to maintain the Status Quo. So I’m wondering if the status quo is best.

“I’m concerned about the path we’re on both in financial terms and in terms of human resources. If we do put a non-violent offender in for serious time, are we engaging in the most effective methods so that they can develop the skills and habits of life to be equipped to lead a productive life after their time in prison?

“I am convicted, as well, that we do not have enough initiatives or programs available within the prison walls when we have people in incarceration. While someone is ‘inside’ we have a time to influence him or her, and they have a time to improve themselves and be ready for life in the mainstream. Otherwise, they may come out of incarceration more at risk to recidivate than when they went in.”

Steele continued, “This brings up another issue, which is the effect on the children of incarcerated parents. I have learned that 70% of the children of incarcerated parent at some point become incarcerated themselves. Another way to put this is that those children are five times more likely than other children to commit crimes and become incarcerated themselves.

“So, I’m wondering what is the better way to become efficient, yet protective of the public interest, watching out for the people who obey the laws? I simply believe we can be and that we must be smart and tough on crime at the same time. …

“Those who do wrong must be punished. I’m also convinced based on empirical evidence that we can get in many cases better outcomes with community-based services.

“We should expect those who have done wrong to toe the line in terms of accountability. That’s the right thing in terms of public responsibility. At the same time the outcomes in terms of dollars and cents are included in our responsibility. The Oklahoma Legislature needs to get serious about Corrections reform.”

Wrapping up with his statements of serious intentions, Steele told CapitolBeatOK, “Right now at 99% capacity [in Corrections facilities]. That means that when we have a wrongdoer today, most particularly a violent criminal, there’s no place to put that person because our system is to some extent clogged with non-violent offenders.

“It is time for a meaningful discussion about what is the better way. Kansas, Texas and some other states have engaged in significant reforms to address corrections issues, incarceration and related issues. It’s time for us to do the same.

“When we do have offenders in our systems, we need to be engaged in education, finding community-based solutions and treatment for those who can be treated for addictions and other problems. And before we ever get people in the system, we should be aiming at the goal of prevention of crime in the first place.”

Asked if there were any other matters he desired to get “out there,” Steele said:

“What immediately comes to mind is something we did cover, or discussed briefly in that stand up press conference the other day.

“I am telling people that I am convicted that there’s a lot of talent in the Legislature, in the House of Representatives, that has not been tapped. I believe a primary responsibility I have is 1) to formulate a vision and make a case for that vision for Oklahoma, then to keep that vision in front of the legislature; and, 2) I believe it is essential to maximize the talent and feed the vision of the members of the Oklahoma Legislature.

“If together we can do those things, even in incomplete ways, it will be a really significant achievement.

“I don’t think I’m any better than anyone else. I do bring a set of experiences and views to the job. I am grateful and thankful with all my heart for the opportunity to make a difference, to carefully work to make things better. I do not take lightly or for granted that opportunity and responsibility.”