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Tulsa World Editorial: A smart approach to the state’s prison problems

Jan 29, 2016 | by Lynn Powell

Oklahoma voters might get a say in rationally and safely reducing the state prison population if a broad-based coalition successfully gathers 86,000 signatures on an initiative petition. The ballot initiative would seek to reclassify low-level drug possession and some property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and require hundreds of nonviolent offenders to receive treatment and supervision in the community rather than serving costly, and largely ineffective, prison sentences. If the measure is successful, voters would accomplish through a ballot initiative what the Legislature never could bring itself to do over the last two decades — reform a criminal justice system that consumes a disproportionate share of state appropriations without leaving communities any safer.

By World’s Editorial Writers | Posted: Friday, January 29, 2016 12:00 am

Oklahoma voters might get a say in rationally and safely reducing the state prison population if a broad-based coalition successfully gathers 86,000 signatures on an initiative petition.

The ballot initiative would seek to reclassify low-level drug possession and some property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and require hundreds of nonviolent offenders to receive treatment and supervision in the community rather than serving costly, and largely ineffective, prison sentences.

If the measure is successful, voters would accomplish through a ballot initiative what the Legislature never could bring itself to do over the last two decades — reform a criminal justice system that consumes a disproportionate share of state appropriations without leaving communities any safer.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform seeks root causes of low-level offenses, often substance abuse and lack of education and job skills. Offenders would receive services for addiction, mental health issues and training, and be held accountable through drug-testing and supervision. The aim is to change tax-consuming, law-breaking offenders into tax-paying, law-abiding citizens.

Savings on incarceration costs would pay for the cheaper and generally more effective approach.

Similar reform has been successful in other states such as Texas, which has seen reduction in prison costs, better outcomes for offenders and falling crime rates.

The nonpartisan coalition is a broad-based group of elected officials, business and faith leaders, law enforcement officials, including the Oklahoma City police chief, and others. It is led by former House Speaker Kris Steele, a conservative Republican.

The state’s current approach to public safety is not working. At 27,000-plus, the prison population is the highest in state history. Oklahoma ranks No. 2 in the U.S. for men and No. 1 for women in per-capita incarceration. The offender recidivism rate is high and prison space is in short supply. That space ought to be reserved for criminals who represent a true danger.

Oklahoma no longer can afford its one-size-fits-all incarceration policy with such poor return on an investment — nearly a half-billion dollars a year.

It’s time for a rational solution. With support from voters, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, could have the answer.

http://www.tulsaworld.com/opinion/editorials/tulsa-world-editorial-a-smart-approach-to-the-state-s/article_1b54f5ec-71e7-537d-8b2a-5b5d01cfb873.html#user-comment-area