Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform director virtually addresses Ardmore Rotary Club

Sierra Rains
The Daily Ardmoreite
Kris Steele, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, addresses members of the Ardmore Rotary Club at their regular meeting on Wednesday through Zoom.

A man at the heart of several criminal justice reform measures, including a state question likely to appear on the ballot in November, virtually returned to his hometown to address members of the Ardmore Rotary Club at their regular meeting on Wednesday. 

Kris Steele, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, grew up in Ardmore, later becoming an ordained minister and seized an opportunity to serve in the state legislature in 2000. During his 10th year in the legislature, Steele said he was given additional responsibility over the state budget. 

“As I began to review our spending trends and really dig into our budget over the course of time, the thing that jumped off the page for me was that in 2008 spending for incarceration had become Oklahoma’s second fastest growing expenditure in state government, second only to Medicaid,” Steele said. 

Oklahoma has a balanced budget amendment in its state constitution which means that the legislature cannot appropriate more money than it takes in during any given fiscal year, Steele said. Therefore, the more money Oklahoma spends on incarceration, the less money the state has to spend on other functions of government such as education, health care, infrastructure and more. 

Today, around 24,000 Oklahomans are behind bars, Steele said. It costs around $19,000 per year to incarcerate an individual in Oklahoma— and to meet the national average prison population, the state would have to reduce the number of Oklahomans behind bars by 8,000 people. 

“It’s costing the taxpayers of Oklahoma a fortune and it’s not doing what it was designed to do as far as reducing crime or improving public safety,” Steele said, adding that the prison population in Oklahoma has increased by over 600% since 1973. 

In 2016, Oklahoma activists and lawmakers began working to reduce the number of individuals in state prisons as Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate in the nation. As the director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, Steele was involved in crafting a ballot initiative to help pass State Questions 780 and 781. 

“In 2016 is when it was obvious that the next logical step for Oklahoma to begin the process for bringing our criminal justice system in line with best practices and national averages — the thing that we must do is establish a standard and bring our sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses in line with what other states are doing," Steele said.

Both measures passed in 2016. SQ 780 reclassified simple drug possession and some minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and SQ 781 directed the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to calculate the savings of these changes and deposit that amount into a fund to be used to provide substance abuse and mental health services. 

“When the voters in 2016 passed SQ 780 it was very clear that the savings from reducing our prison population were supposed to be redirected back to local communities to invest in treatment and mental health care,” Steele said. 

Since 2017, Steele said the Office of Management and Enterprise Services has determined that SQ 780 saved Oklahoma taxpayers nearly $60 million. However, the funds have yet to be redirected back to Oklahoma counties. 

“We didn’t have the teeth because it was a statutory change,” Steele said. The newest criminal justice reform measure, State Question 805, will appear on the ballot as an initiated constitutional amendment in order to “enforce the will of the people,” Steele said. This means that the only way the measure can be changed is through a vote of the people. 

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 anyone who has ever been convicted of a violent felony. 

Currently, anyone who has been convicted of a felony in the past could have their sentence enhanced or extended beyond the maximum range of punishment that has been assigned by the legislature. 

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. The measure would also peel back enhancements for DUI’s, human trafficking and some property crimes.

"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. 

In Oklahoma, sentence enhancements for non-violent offenders are applied in four out of five cases. “So if you are convicted of a non-violent drug-related offense, statistically you will spend 80% longer in an Oklahoma prison than you would if you were convicted of the same offense in any other state in America,” Steele said. 

In 1991, Oklahoma became the world leader in female incarceration and the state continues to hold that distinction, while also being the state with the highest rate of incarceration among African Americans, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. 

“It’s not just the fact that we are sending more people to prison than virtually every other state in America, it’s the fact that we send people to prison for a lot longer than any other state,” Steele said.

Nearly 84% of the women who are incarcerated in Oklahoma today are mothers, leaving behind their children and subsequently tearing families apart. Studies have shown these incarceration rates are connected to Oklahoma’s high rate of grandparents raising their grandchildren, Steele said. 

Further studies also indicate that the top driving factor of female incarceration in Oklahoma is domestic abuse, Steele said. Unresolved trauma from any form of abuse can lead to untreated mental illness and addiction, which can lead down other pathways to incarceration. “Historically, Oklahoma has treated addiction as a crime rather than a health condition,” Steele said. 

According to an analysis by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a policy analysts group, the passage of SQ 805 is expected to save Oklahoma taxpayers $190 million to be reinvested in education, services for survivors, mental health care, treatment and other priorities for the state that could help address core issues of incarceration. 

Steele said other states that have implemented similar policies have seen a reduction in prison population and crime rates, and an increase in quality of life. 

“The reality is this, people who break the law need to be held accountable. We understand that, we believe that there has to be consequences,” Steele said. “But the issue is appropriate consequences. If we’re ever going to have a just system we have to have a model that treats everyone the same, we have to take the bias out of prosecution and the bias out of our sentencing.”