Group fighting to reform criminal justice system in Oklahoma

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Community leaders and experts from across the state are working together to pass a ballot initiative that would revamp the criminal justice system in the Sooner State.

According to the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the state’s prison population has increased 12 percent over the last five years and the price tag to house all of the offenders has jumped 172 percent.

The group says it supports sentencing reforms for certain low-level offenses.

The ballot initiative would reclassify low-level offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. Organizers say that change would trigger cost savings by putting fewer people in prison.

Second, the ballot initiative would use those cost savings into rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior. It would also provide education and job training program to help low-level offenders turn their lives around.

“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, the chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reforms and former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. “It’s time we institute a more effective approach that addresses the root cause 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 health and well-being of our communities is dependent on Oklahoma’s willingness to re-evaluate how and when we incarcerate persons who commit crimes,” said Bill Citty, Chief of Police in Oklahoma City. “More and more research indicates that incarceration for lower level crimes doesn’t reduce crime in our communities. I have witnessed how alternative sentencing, with the appropriate resources and supervision, can help someone become a productive citizen without facing incarceration. If we don’t address it now, we will continue to fill our jails and prisons while doing nothing to reduce the costs of incarceration, mental health and addiction.”

It’s an issue that is plaguing states across the country.

Last year, President Barack Obama visited a federal prison in El Reno to speak with inmates who are serving long sentences for drug offenses.

“We have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals. This is costing taxpayers across America $80 billion a year. And, as I said on Tuesday, there are people who need to be in prison, and I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals. Many of them may have made mistakes, but we need to keep our communities safe. On the other hand, when we’re looking at nonviolent offenders, most of them are growing up in environments in which drug traffic is common, where many of their family members may have been involved in the drug trade. We have to reconsider whether 20 year, 30 year life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems,” he said.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform will begin collecting signatures from voters across the state in the coming weeks.

The group’s goal is to collect 86,000 signatures to ensure the imitative is included on the ballot in November.

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