Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin promises to sustain renewed momentum for criminal justice reform

OKLAHOMA CITY – In wake of the November election, Governor Mary Fallin said that Oklahoma voters have made it clear they want the state to redirect how it deals with drug addiction and the criminal justice system.
In all, 58.2 percent of voters on November 8 supported for State Question 780, which would reduce the penalties for some nonviolent crimes. S.Q. 780 and a companion proposal, State Question 781, build on ideas first enacted, but not implemented, in the historic Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which the Legislature passed and Fallin signed in 2012.
“The people of Oklahoma have decided that we can no longer afford to fill our prisons with individuals suffering from addiction; that strategy has been far too costly in dollars and in lives,” said Fallin. “This historic vote reflects a fundamental change in the way our state understands and treats drug addiction, a disease that has destroyed too many of our families. This is a great step.”
Fallin in August established the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force. The task force has been developing data-driven policy recommendations to improve public safety, control corrections spending and improve recidivism rates for consideration during the 2017 legislative session.
The task force includes law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, the business community, victim advocates, mental health and addiction professionals and legislators. With the passage of S.Q. 780, Fallin is encouraging the task force to advance comprehensive policies that improve public safety, more effectively treat drug and alcohol addiction, and help families and communities develop and thrive.
Oklahoma has the second- highest imprisonment rate in the country. It has the highest rate for women – a ranking the state has held since 1991. Moreover, Oklahoma’s prison population was projected to grow by approximately 10,000 inmates over the next 10 years.
While the passage of S.Q. 780 will help slow this growth, the state will continue to lock up greater numbers of Oklahomans, especially women. Currently, 70 percent of women and 67 percent of men incarcerated in the state prison system were sentenced for non-violent crimes or low-level drug offenses.
Women in prisons have a high rate of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illness, often due to domestic violence or adverse childhood experiences. Studies document that incarcerated women are three times more likely to be the only parent in the home which leaves their children without a mother and their home.
Oklahoma has about 9,800 children in state custody. These children are often from families fractured by substance abuse, addiction and poverty.
Fallin said voters recognized the need for Oklahoma to better assist parents who are addicted, with appropriate treatment, rather than felony prosecution and long-term incarceration.
“We are creating an epidemic of broken families in Oklahoma by incarcerating mothers and fathers who are struggling with addiction,” the governor said. “A system that results in the break-up of the family because of addiction is not in keeping with Oklahoma values. A system that puts a young person in front of a judge under the threat of incarceration for a youthful indiscretion risks making that child a lifelong participant in the criminal justice system. And, a state that prioritizes a prison system over its education system puts its future in serious jeopardy. Oklahoma is not that state and we cannot become it. It’s time we get smarter on how we confront crime.”
Also on November 8, 56.22 percent of voters supported S.Q 781, a companion of S.Q. 780. Advocates of the two measures contend S.Q. 781 is critical because the proposal’s authors envision that the policy shift incorporated into state law through S.Q. 780 allows the investment of “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.”  
NOTE: Editor Pat McGuigan contributed to this report.