In 2016, Oklahomans made clear they are tired of being the incarceration capital of the world, approving two state questions aimed at reversing decades of punitive, tough-on-crime policies and refocusing criminal justice on rehabilitation, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and job training.
Now, four legislative sessions and four state budgets later, we can clearly see the two state questions did not have the hoped for impact – primarily because the voter-approved changes were statutory not constitutional, giving a Legislature that was elected on tough-on-crime platforms the leeway to mostly ignore the will of the voters.
It is true that second-year Gov. Kevin Stitt has commuted the non-violent sentences of hundreds of Oklahoma inmates, flattening the growth in prison population. But the Legislature hasn’t redirected the savings – as intended – into programs aimed at turning non-violent lawbreakers into productive taxpaying citizens.
As we’ve discussed in recent Observercasts, the state budget is more than a simple dollars and cents ledger – it’s a moral document that speaks to our priorities as Oklahomans. Statehouse leadership’s failure to meaningfully embrace the voter-approved changes means tax dollars are being spent primarily to underwrite the prison industrial complex – not on improving the lives of Oklahomans and our communities.
Former House Speaker Kris Steele and his group Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform were the driving force behind the successful SQ 780 and 781 campaigns. Today Steele and Co. are back with a proposed constitutional amendment, SQ 805, that if approved by voters would leave lawmakers no choice but to end the use of sentence enhancements – which are used to pile additional time onto prison sentences if individuals previously served time for non-violent offenses.
For the latest Observercast, Episode 17: Getting Oklahoma Right On Crime, which concludes our budget series on the state’s criminal justice system and the courts, we invited Speaker Steele back to give us an update on efforts to make Oklahoma smart on crime.