November 3, 2019; Washington Post
Oklahoma had the distinction of incarcerating people at a higher rate per capita than any other state in the country—and in this country, which has the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world, that’s some distinction. But over the past few years, there has been enough of a change that the state took the sudden, extraordinary step of commuting hundreds of sentences over the course of four days. The Washington Post has taken a run at a retrospective of the situation while cautioning that observers should not take too much from it in terms of future criminal justice prospects.
Reporter Kim Bellware observes that the Republican-dominated legislature has long been out of alignment with most of the state’s voters on the harshness of its sentences. In fact, in 2016, the voters approved two ballot measures that reclassified certain offenses, including simple drug possession, as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Furthermore, the savings gleaned from these measures—an estimated $11.9 million based on costs of all of those prisoners serving out their full sentences—are not to be plowed back into the state treasury but instead invested in drug treatment and rehabilitation.
What’s more, the traditional lock-’em-up legislature voted to make the laws retroactive. One can only surmise that they saw the writing on the wall. First-term governor Kevin Stitt campaigned explicitly on a platform that included the reduction of the prison population. As he readied himself to sign 524 sets of commutation orders, he declared that he would be doing “the will of the people.”
And the change is, indeed, stark:
Kris Steele, a Republican who served in the state legislature from 2000 to 2012, is now the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. In his view from within the state’s Republican Party, Steele said criminal justice reform was barely on the radar during his time in the legislature.
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“For the first three or four elections, the methodology was to run a platform of ‘tough on crime.’ Political consultants advised that. There were even predesigned mail pieces with that messaging,” Steele told the Post.
By contrast, during the most recent election cycle, Steele couldn’t recall a major Republican candidate who ran on a punitive platform. “I think the vast majority of candidates and incumbents ran a corrections reform message.”
Steele says he thinks the state’s Republican lawmakers have finally come to see overincarceration as the very definition of inefficient and ineffective government. With the imprisonment rate what it is—one out of 100 state residents locked up at any given time—most voters likely know someone caught up in the system.
“If it’s not your loved one, chances are, it’s a friend,” says Steele. “The proximity, in many ways, has changed people’s thinking.”
But like other reform-minded advocates, Steele says that it is best not to assume that the road ahead will be without blockades—local district attorneys and their allies among them.—Ruth McCambridge