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Criminal justice reform finally begins in Oklahoma

Mary Fallin signing criminal justice reform bills on April 26

Our nation imprisons more people than any other place on Earth—and many of those incarcerated individuals are drug addicts who committed nonviolent offenses like possessing drugs. Incarceration costs more than substance abuse treatment and many state budgets are strained. This has led to an oddly bipartisan consensus. Chris Christie, Colin Kaepernick, and Bernie Sanders all agree on the necessity of criminal justice reform. Less than a month ago in our ruby-red state, Governor Mary Fallin signed seven major criminal justice reform bills into law. The rising opioid crisis and present budget realities have made lowering Oklahoma’s prison population a bipartisan priority.

As Fallin signed the bills at a press conference on April 26, she was surrounded by women from the Tulsa-based Women in Recovery program, an intensive outpatient alternative for women facing long prison sentences for drug-related crimes.

“Oklahoma’s had a long history of incarcerating nonviolent offenders who have addiction issues, sometimes for long periods of time,” Fallin said. “Today we’re changing that.”

Each bill Fallin signed makes it harder to end up in prison just for being a drug addict:

SB 649: Stops prosecutors from seeking tougher sentences for felons with previous drug crimes.

SB 650: Eases requirements for drug felons who have served their time to have their felony records cleared.

SB 689: Makes it harder for people to go back to prison for technical parole violations like failing a drug test, encouraging non-incarceration alternatives first.

SB 786: Eliminates the mandatory minimum for second degree burglary and other crimes often associated with substance abuse.

SB 793: Creates a distinction between manufacturing and distribution of drugs and lowers the criminal penalty for certain drug crimes.

HB 2281: Decreases the fines and penalties for property crime statistically related to substance abuse.

HB 2286: Overhauls the state’s parole system; guarantees parole to any inmate with good behavior who has met (automatic) administrative parole requirements.

These measures aim to keep people with substance abuse issues in their communities, seeking treatment, working jobs, and paying taxes rather than wasting away in a jail cell. They also will, hopefully, steer those fighting addiction towards a healthier life and away from prison.

When she was seven months pregnant, Alexis Stephens was arrested for breaking into her ex-boyfriend’s house in Tulsa. She was struggling with an opioid addiction and headed for what could have been a lengthy prison sentence. Her youngest daughter, Addison, was born while she was in jail that June.

“I’d lost Carson, my nine-year-old [to DHS], and I was still grappling with a pretty terrible addiction,” Stephens said. “When I was offered the chance to enter [Women in Recovery] with the potential of seeing my son again, of course I jumped at it.”

This was possible because courts in Oklahoma are now encouraged to seek alternatives to prison for those struggling with substance abuse. Stephens now works full time and has her children back. The most recent reforms make it more likely her criminal record will eventually be cleared and less likely she’ll return to prison for a parole violation.

But criminal justice reform isn’t just altruism. Prior to the passage of these bills, the cost of Oklahoma prisons was projected to grow by $1.9 billion over the next decade.

Ryan Gentzler, criminal justice policy specialist with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, paints a sobering picture of the data.

“Oklahoma has overtaken Louisiana as the most incarcerated state in the country. These numbers come at a time when Oklahoma, along with many states (according to FBI statistics), has seen a decline in violent crime overall,” Gentzler said.

“The pattern that most states have followed in recent years is diverting people away from prisons and taking the savings from that and putting that money into programs for mental health and substance abuse on the front end. Most states have done that. Oklahoma passed a law that would do that [in 2016] but didn’t fund it and didn’t implement it. That’s why our incarceration rates have continued to grow.”

It costs $500 million a year to incarcerate people in Oklahoma. Perhaps the simplest solution for so many of our budget problems is just to send fewer Oklahomans to prison.

Officer Anthony First, a 15-year veteran of the Tulsa Police Department and a drug training expert for the state, shared his perspective.

“We can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem,” First said. “The opioid issue is too large, and it’s just breaking too many families and communities. I don’t think locking up nonviolent addicts is what the police and court system are for.”

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