In 2011, Oklahoma faced a budget shortfall of nearly $400 million dollars. As a result, legislators began looking for ways to “cut the fat” from spending at the statehouse. Through the process, they were also exposed to a new way of thinking, a new method to end the madness.
In that same year, a procession of state leaders, including Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore and Kris Steele, R-Shawnee traveled to Austin, Texas to observe some of the “radical” changes Texas was making to its criminal justice system.
“We went and saw what they were doing in Texas, and that it was working,” Ownbey said. “That is where we are trying to get.”
Legislation failed to make it to the governor’s desk in 2011 — and every year since. Ownbey said that some of the failure was due in part to Governor Mary Fallin’s refusal to accept federal money.
Steele served in the state legislature from 2000-2012, serving his last term in office as the speaker of the house. Though no longer in office, Steele continues to push for reform as the chairman for Oklahomans of Criminal Justice Reform.
Steele has collected a diverse coalition from both sides of the aisle, and now wants to go directly to the voters to avoid further political gridlock. Conservatives and Progressives are working hand-in-hand in an attempt to reclassify minor drug possessions and property crimes under $1000 from felony convictions punishable by incarceration to misdemeanors punishable by treatment, mental health care and supervision in the community through State Questions 780 and SQ 781.
“The punishment ought to fit the crime,” Steele said.
The questions are co-dependent. SQ 780 would reclassify minor crimes, while State Question 781 provides the funding mechanism to provide the treatment. Funding would be derived from the saving from lower incarceration rates, while communities like Ardmore could, in theory, use the punishment, ie a community service element of sentencing to offset cost of maintenance to municipal properties, the same properties previously maintained by inmate work centers.
“Drugs are so prevalent today,” Ownby said. “We keep locking people up for it, and they keep coming out with PHD’s in drugs. It’s a never ending cycle.”
Steele said that prisons are currently at 122 percent capacity, while staffing is at 60 percent, predicting that overcrowding and understaffing would worsen if the state failed to enact reform.
“We (Oklahoma) have the highest female incarceration rate, per capita, in the nation, we now have the second highest male incarceration rate,” Steele said. “We are spending more than a half a billion dollars a year on incarceration cost. Our appropriations have increased 174 percent in the last two decades.”
Though attitudes toward addiction and mental illness have shifted recently, the state’s incarceration rates have yet to catch up with public perceptions.
“We need to do the right thing,” Ownbey said. “It would save us money and it would actually allow us to address the issue.”
If enacted, each question would not be retroactive; individuals currently incarcerated would not be included, only future sentencing would apply.
“In future years, those savings would be returned to the communities,” Steele said, adding that “According to the Department of Correction, 60 percent of the state’s prison population has an offense related to drug abuse, more than 30 percent have a mental health issue. It costs the state, on average, $19,000 a year to incarcerate an individual, while it only cost $6,000 to provide treatment and supervision in the community.”
In contrast, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Oklahoma is set to spend roughly $7,600 per student for education in the next fiscal year.
“The more we spend on incarceration the less we have to spend on education, health care, transportation, economic development and other core functions of government,” Steele said. “All of the debates, discussions or decisions in relation to corrections policy and spending were made based off of emotions, fear and anecdotes.”
As the laws currently stands, minor offenders are often convicted of felonies that could hamper future attempts at gaining employment.
“You put a felony in front of your name and it’s that much harder to go out and get a job,” Ownbey said. “It (SQ 780 and SQ 781) puts people back into the community, makes them productive members instead of being a drain.”
Ownbey added that 75 percent or more of local crimes were drug related.
“A person that battles addiction or mental illness is not a bad person, they just need help, they need treatment.” Steele said. “It’s a paradigm shift to treat people for their issues rather than to tag them with that scarlet letter for life.”
Steele said that the state has already taken steps to reduce the impact felonies has on perspective employees – 1 out of every 12 Oklahomans according to a 2007 study – attempts to rejoin the Oklahoma workforce by no longer requiring application for state position to ask the “felony question.”
Local impact: Treatment would shift to local drug courts and mental health professionals instead of prison facilities throughout the state effectively cutting overall cost of criminal justice while providing a small boost to the local economy.
“The downside. Drug courts are a financial burden on the participant,” Steele said. “It’s great for those that can afford it. This could allow local courts to make those options more affordable.”
Steele said the primary opposition tends to revolve around habitual offenders of minor possession, with some district attorney’s showing concern about the lack of punishment for the fourth, fifth or sixth offense.
“My response is that the punishment is the addiction itself,” Steele said. “Relapse is part of the recovery process.”
Steele spoke of one district attorney from Texas who responding to attacks for supporting similar reforms, reforms enacted by Texas that both Steele and Ownbey agree have worked.
“His words,” Steele said. “‘The easiest thing to do is to require someone to sit in a cell 24 hours a day. Anyone can do  that. The tough thing is to force someone to go to treatment, work a job, pay their bills, take care of their families, pay their taxes and pay restitution. That stuff is tough. The easy way out is to have them sit in a jail cell.”