After over a decade of hard work and study, criminal justice reform has bipartisan support across the state. Over 70 bills have been filed this legislative session to address excessive sentences, community supervision, pretrial detention, and more. But, with all the talk of needed policy reforms — all of which is important — let’s remember that these changes would impact real people.
Moms separated from their kids. Dads who can’t be there to support their families. Brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are behind bars for addiction-related crimes instead of in treatment. For too long, our state’s first reaction to crime of any kind has been to lock people up, often for much longer than peer states do for similar non-violent crimes. We need to think differently about incarceration in Oklahoma — in a way that upholds public safety as our primary concern, but also shows just mercy for Oklahomans.
I’ve been working in prison ministry for some time, and seen firsthand that people have the capacity to heal. People make poor choices and regret them deeply — who among us hasn’t? But our communities are better served if people can get the treatment and help they need to return to employment and their families.
In Oklahoma we often send abused mothers to prison longer than the actual child abuser. We frequently leave individuals in jail for months before they are ever even convicted of a crime. We further alienate the poorest among us by pricing them out of the bail market, leaving them stuck in jail for financial reasons, not safety concerns. We place people on probation with a dizzying array of restrictions and rules that set them up for failure. We don’t even give justice-involved individuals a reason when they are denied parole. We are keeping thousands of people in prisons for crimes that, if committed today, likely wouldn’t lead to any prison time.
Most Oklahomans have heard by now that we incarcerate more men and women than any other state in the country. That means more than 27,000 men and women are sitting behind bars today, or 113 percent of our state’s prison capacity. What is unknown is how many children that has placed in our foster care system, or how many students are sitting at their desks concerned about when they will see their parent again instead of learning how to read. There are countless men and women going to sleep tonight in prison, instead of in treatment getting the help and support they need to return to being employed, tax paying citizens.
The good news is there is a bipartisan coalition of stakeholders, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR), supporting 14 smart criminal justice reforms (which can be found atwww.okjusticereform.org) that would reduce Oklahoma’s projected prison population by 17 percent by 2028. Research has shown that these policies work and have been effective in South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana. The reforms would improve public safety, ensure fairness in courts, reduce unnecessary prison terms, better inform future policymakers and keep families together.
There is widespread, bipartisan support to continue criminal justice reform work from the last few years to create a smarter, safer, and more effective criminal justice system. These reforms are the right next steps in that direction. It is imperative that we reduce our state’s prison population and reunite families across Oklahoma.
Oklahomans support reforming our state’s criminal justice system. They voted for it in 2016, and the polling shows support continues to grow. Our state has waited years doing study after study, implementing various task forces, but the only way real change can occur is if we start taking action. Why would we wait to do the right thing?
Susan Esco has been an advocate for justice-involved individuals since 2007. She is the board vice president of Branch15, a Christ-centered transitional living facility with individualized care and support for women on their paths to recovery, and is co-founder of Living Hope Women’s Ministry, a transitional ministry for women coming out of prison.