Former Speaker Steele, retired Corrections Director Justin Jones gain honors from VOICE

OKLAHOMA CITY – Former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, was honored with the Lifetime Civic Engagement Award from VOICE (Voices Organized in Civic Engagement) Action Fund during a dinner ceremony at the downtown Petroleum Club Friday (November 14).

He shared the designation with Justin Jones, retired director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Steele, a conservative Republican, was honored for his leadership of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, intended to direct taxpayer resources toward programs for supervision and rehabilitation of offenders. The legislation was intended as a step back from the Sooner State’s unenviable position as first in female incarceration and third in male incarceration among the 50 states. During his tenure as state House, Steele secured passage of measures amounting to the most sweeping criminal justice reforms in modern state history.

Although Gov. Mary Fallin signed that legislation and maintains she supports for objectives, the Republican chief executive’s staff has “slow-played” implementation of the measure’s historic provisions.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry’s Republican administration enacted variations of similar restorative justice provisions more than a decade ago. Subsequently, the state’s incarceration levels flattened, the crime rate fell and the Lone Star state actually canceled new prison construction.

Both Jones and Steele said business interests had contributed to inaction on the historic justice reforms.

In his acceptance speech, Speaker Steele pressed a pragmatic case for reform, saying it would save money and allow resources to be directed toward education and health care. He leavened the practical case with ethical arguments, saying, “I think it’s immoral for a private business to make money off of people who commit crime. … I also think it’s wrong for country governments to make money off people who commit crimes.”

Steele argued, to loud applause, that incentives are poorly structured in the existing system. He said that instead of steadily boosting expenditures for prisons and jails, policymakers should reward lower incarceration rates and use of proven programs to encourage restitution and accountability by law-breakers.

Steele said he was encouraged when both candidates for governor, Fallin and her Democratic opponent Joe Dorman, agreed on the need for implementation of prison reforms.

Steele, an ordained Methodist minister, now runs The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), an inner-city ministry that now specializes in assisting incarcerated people as they emerge from prisons and jails.

Director Jones gently teased Steele for “being too young to get a lifetime achievement award,” then praised his friend’s determination in gaining the legislation’s approval. Jones pointed out that news coverage of rehabilitation programs is often skewed. In any given year, approximately 8,000 inmates will emerge from behind bars – and at least 7,000 of those people will not return to a life of crime.

Jones now runs a private business consulting on incarceration issues, and serves on the board of a Christian ministry devoted to helping the children of imprisoned mothers and fathers.

Rev. Theodis Manning, chairman of the VOICE restorative justice committee, introduced Jones; Rev. Jim Gragg of the VOICE board of directors introduced Steele.

Other speakers included Heather Sparks, who chaired the VOICE Education committee this year, Sundra Flansburg of the VOICE Education Fund, and Rev. Jonalu Johnstone of the VOICE Action Fund. Rev. Tim Luschen delivered the evening’s invocation.

Festivities took place at the historic Petroleum Club, on a busy night for the downtown area, which hosted a home game for the NBA Thunder. 

A silent auction raised hundreds of dollars for each of several gift baskets donated for the event. 

Awardees, friends, family and attendees lingered to enjoy the club’s dance floor, with music provided by BTP Productions.

VOICE is a coalition of some 30 organizations in the metropolitan area. The group’s literature says, “We come together to build relational power and challenge the issues the fact our families.”  

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at the State Capitol: 405-601-3433