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Initiative to address prison overcrowding, spending launches with petition effort

Jan 29, 2016 | by Lynn Powell

OKLAHOMA CITY — A coalition on Wednesday announced it will pursue a vote of the people in an effort to reduce the prison population, save money and help low-level offenders get treatment and find employment. “Right now in Oklahoma, we have the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, which drains significant resources away from investments that can reduce crime by rehabilitating Oklahomans and returning them to productive lives in the community,” said Kris Steele, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform chairman and former speaker of the Oklahoma House. “It’s time we institute a more effective approach that addresses the root causes of crime and makes Oklahoma’s communities safer. “I’m proud that so many of our leaders agree and are joining with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform to take the issue directly to the people.”

By BARBARA HOBEROCK World Capitol Bureau | Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2016 12:00 am

OKLAHOMA CITY — A coalition on Wednesday announced it will pursue a vote of the people in an effort to reduce the prison population, save money and help low-level offenders get treatment and find employment.

“Right now in Oklahoma, we have the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, which drains significant resources away from investments that can reduce crime by rehabilitating Oklahomans and returning them to productive lives in the community,” said Kris Steele, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform chairman and former speaker of the Oklahoma House. “It’s time we institute a more effective approach that addresses the root causes of crime and makes Oklahoma’s communities safer.

“I’m proud that so many of our leaders agree and are joining with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform to take the issue directly to the people.”

The coalition announced the initiative petitions, State Questions 780 and 781, during a Capitol press conference and filed the paperwork with Secretary of State Chris Benge.

The ballot initiative reclassifies certain low-level offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. Such a move would save money by decreasing spending on corrections.

It would not apply to drug distribution or manufacturing, Steele said.

“We need to make sure space is available for those individuals who engage in distribution or manufacturing, but when it comes to addiction or simple possession, we believe Oklahoma communities are better served if those individuals receive treatment and supervision in the community rather than long prison sentences,” Steele said.

The initiative would invest the cost savings into rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior but go untreated in prison. It would also invest savings in education and job-training programs to help low-level offenders find employment and avoid returning to prison.

“The purpose is to give low-level offenders a second chance,” Steele said.

The coalition will begin efforts to collect signatures in the coming weeks, with the goal of obtaining 86,000 signatures to get it on the ballot in November.

“We feel strongly there is public support for these conservative, common-sense reforms and want to be able to give voters an opportunity to have their voice heard on the issue,” Steele said.

The state has a long history of prison crowding. The prison population increased by 12 percent from 2009 to 2014. Budget constrictions have reduced programs and caused correctional officers to work overtime to cover shifts.

“Spending nearly half a billion dollars a year to imprison people does nothing to address the underlying conditions like mental health and addiction which send many individuals to prison in the first place,” said Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa. “Our Legislature is working hard to address mandatory minimums of low-level offenders and alternatives to incarceration while ensuring public safety. These ballot initiatives will complement our efforts.”

Peterson said the state’s high incarceration rate affects other areas of government, such as social services provided to the inmates’ children.

State officials earlier this year declared a revenue failure, triggering mandatory cuts from general revenue to state appropriated agencies, including the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

In addition, lawmakers expect to have at least $900.8 million less to spend in crafting the fiscal year 2017 budget.

http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/capitol_report/initiative-to-address-prison-overcrowding-spending-launches-with-petition-effort/article_e33592ad-43fa-527c-ac95-eef0a77172d2.html