Oklahoma activists discuss criminal justice reform to appear on November ballot, impact of incarceration on families
In 2016, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate in the United States, and activists and lawmakers began working to reduce the number of individuals in state prisons.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a coalition of businesses and community leaders, crafted a ballot initiative to pass State Questions 780 and 781. These measures passed and subsequently led to the release of hundreds of inmates in 2019 — and this year, some of those same activists are seeking to further reform the criminal justice system with State Question 805.
“Minorities and people who are struggling financially are the very people that we are locking up — it is so unjust and so unfair and with everything going on in our country right now, this is a perfect example that this is a time for change,” said Susan Esco, who serves on the board for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and volunteers in prison ministries.
On July 29, the Oklahoma Supreme Court determined that the Yes on 805 campaign’s 248,521 counted signatures was sufficient to place the state question on the November 3 ballot. SQ 805 would prohibit a person’s former felony convictions from being used to make a person’s sentence longer or harsher. The measure would not apply to those who have been convicted of a violent felony.
Violent offenses listed in Oklahoma Statute Title 57 Section 571 include assault, battery, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, child abuse, rape, rioting, arson, terrorism and more. Those in opposition to the measure fear that SQ 805 would remove protections for domestic violence victims, as most domestic violence crimes are not considered “violent crimes” in Oklahoma.
"Its purpose is to protect repeat offenders from receiving greater punishments than first-time offenders. I have prosecuted many first-degree murder cases, more than I can count on one hand, which stemmed from domestic violence. Truly, I do not understand the logic of seeking a constitutional amendment to go easier on career criminals. It makes absolutely no sense to me,” said District Attorney Craig Ladd in a Feb. 27 interview regarding the possible repercussions of the measure.
The measure would also peel back enhancements for DUI’s, human trafficking and some property crimes. However, many in support of SQ 805 argue that resources spent on locking up non-violent offenders for long periods of time could be better used for rehabilitation programs to help those individuals break cycles of incarceration and reintegrate into society.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Chairman Kris Steele said adding additional time to a person’s punishment for a non-violent offense if they have a previous conviction occurs in four out of five cases in Oklahoma, and Oklahomans convicted of non-violent drug crimes tend to spend 79% longer in prison than they would anywhere else in the nation.
“What we know now is that harsh, punitive, excessive sentences for non-violent offenders do not reduce crime," Steele said."That method does not increase public safety. What it does do is it adds to instability, it adds to criminogenic risk factors in the life of an individual that has to be in that environment for prolonged periods of time, it tears families apart and it ultimately hurts our economy."
Oklahoma still remains among the states with the highest incarceration rates, and many Oklahomans have had their own personal experiences with incarceration, whether it be personally or a family member. On Tuesday, several individuals shared their personal experiences during a virtual town hall meeting led by the Yes on 805 campaign.
Sonya Pyles, the current project coordinator for Tulsa Lawyers for Children, spent several years behind bars before getting a second chance. Pyles experienced several forms of abuse as a child and when she was 13, she began experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
“It seemed to be a great way at the time to ease the pain of what I had endured. Ultimately, that led me down the pathway to addiction and incarceration,” Pyles said. By the time she turned 24, Pyles was on her way to prison, leaving two small children under the age of three behind.
Pyles served three years for a non-violent, low-level drug crime and several additional years due to sentence enhancements. Upon her release, Pyles said she felt like her “back was against the wall,” as she had received no treatment in prison.
“People are in long, long periods of time when it’s not changing them. We’re locking up people that we don’t need to be afraid of, they need help. They’re wounded and we need to get real help for people,” Esco said. “Our justice system is intended to provide restoration and that’s not what’s happening. We’re keeping people in and we’re not restoring lives.”
Pyles said a cycle of incarceration continued for her, until she was given the opportunity to be a participant in the Women in Recovery program in Tulsa. The program provided her with the tools she needed to become successful.
“I wanted to break this vicious cycle and I wasn’t going to do it by being in prison for any amount of time,” Pyles said. “I am a successful woman because I had a second chance. I needed help, not to spend time in prison away from my family.”
The time Pyles spent behind bars destroyed her family — an experience shared by many Oklahomans. Rachelle Hodman’s brother was serving five life sentences without parole for non-violent drug possession before he was released with the help of Project Commutation, an effort to help correct excessive and unjust sentences.
“So many families are left with the burden. When one person is incarcerated it affects the whole family,” Hodman said. “I think sometimes kids repeat that because they don’t have a parent around. It tears families apart. You have kids that live with shame and embarrassment when they’re asked about their parents.”
Kyila Crutcher, a 19-year-old political science major at the University of Arkansas, avoided the cycle of incarceration many children of incarcerated parents fall into, but has still felt the ripple effects from her father being incarcerated for the majority of her life.
Crutcher’s father was taken to prison when she was barely a year old for a non-violent crime. “He just wanted to make a way for his family. My dad didn’t take anybody away from their family, so why was it a dire need to take him away from his, for this long?” she said.
Crutcher always hoped that her father would see her walk across the stage as she graduated high school, but that didn’t happen.
“Not having my father in my life has impacted me in how I go about everything,” Crutcher said, adding that he inspired her to go into law. “Children need both of their parents. I think there’s a way we can punish people without ripping families apart.”
According to an analysis of SQ 805, Steele said the measure could potentially save the state $186 million, which could be reinvested in mental health services, treatment services, job training — things that Steele believes would improve the quality of life in Oklahoma.
“In order for a person to make amends for his or her mistakes, they have to be empowered and equipped and given the opportunity to do that,” Steele said. “The way that we reduce our crime rates is by addressing the core issues that are driving the behavior when we make investments in treatment and mental health care, trauma care, and the things that will truly empower and enable all of us to succeed.”