Our current tough-on-crime approach has failed to keep us safe. It’s time to stop allowing fear to overcome reason in our criminal justice policy
Last week, the director of the Okmulgee County jail blamed extreme overcrowding for a violent outbreak in the facility, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma reported a steep increase in the number and severity of complaints they are receiving from inmates, and the head of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals wrote that corrections officers’ last hope for a safe workplace may be a federal takeover of Oklahoma prisons.
Two years ago, hopes were high that Oklahoma would take a different approach, away from policies that have given us sky-high incarceration rates without reducing crime and recidivism. Ideas for reform came through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, spearheaded by former Speaker of the House Kris Steele. The effort culminated in a major reform bill passed in 2012. Unfortunately, the reform process languished after Gov. Mary Fallin refused funds to help implement the law.
Recently, however, Fallin released a new report. Prepared at her request, it lays out a path forward. Recommendations include enforcing parts of the law passed two years ago that have been largely ignored, such as funding mental health treatment and enforcing nine months of mandatory supervision after release. The report also calls for building on reforms by revisiting mandatory sentences for drug offences and removing barriers to employment for former inmates, among other things.
The report offers a compelling blueprint for what needs to happen, but it’s just the latest among many studies over the years to lay out a more sensible approach to criminal justice. What has been consistently lacking is the will and the leadership to get it done.
We must hope that Oklahoma’s latest headlines don’t sap our will. After a horrific murder in Moore, two district attorneys expressed frustration that the suspect had spent only two years in prison for a prior drug possession conviction. Yet we should question whether this seriously disturbed man would have come out of prison more stable in six years than he did in two. We could just as easily ask if by sending a young man with drug problems into prison, instead of community corrections and treatment, we helped turn him into something much worse.
Our current tough-on-crime approach has failed to keep us safe. It’s time to stop allowing fear to overcome reason in our criminal justice policy.
David Blatt is executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, http://okpolicy.org.
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