This year, our nation will make some important decisions about the direction and leadership we want for our country. Come November, Oklahomans will flock to ballot boxes across our great state to make their voices heard.
But just as important as who we choose to lead our nation is how we appropriate hard earned dollars here in Oklahoma – especially when it comes to preventing crime and making our communities safer.
Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country, and the highest incarceration rate for women. Oklahomans spend nearly $500 million a year to pay for corrections — a cost that has grown by 172 percent over the past two decades.
With the prison population, and cost to taxpayers, continuing to climb, it’s time to ask ourselves: Shouldn’t we be getting a better return on our investment? Isn’t there a better way to invest in public safety and address the root causes of crime?
The answer is yes, and today we are taking a bold step in the right direction.
Wednesday marks the launch of a new campaign and ballot initiative effort that takes a smarter approach to public safety. The campaign, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, will pursue more effective policies that reduce the prison population and redirect the savings to address the root causes of crime – and help low-level offenders turn their lives around.
We are joined by respected leaders from across the state including faith leaders, business leaders, policy experts, treatment and rehabilitation providers, and many others. The support for our campaign is testament to how important this is to our future and to reducing crime in Oklahoma.
And it’s easy to see why.
Oklahoma is saddled with high incarceration rates and high costs for a reason — our approach to public safety isn’t working.
We spend nearly $500 million a year to imprison more people per capita than almost every other state in the nation, which does nothing to treat underlying conditions like mental health issues and drug addiction — conditions that lead people to commit crimes in the first place.
Spending money on an ineffective system isn’t just a bad investment, it’s a lost opportunity.
It drains resources away from investing in opportunities that can actually reduce crime by rehabilitating Oklahomans and returning them to productive lives in the community.
We want to fix that, and need Oklahomans everywhere to help us make it happen by supporting our ballot initiative.
The ballot initiative reclassifies certain low-level offenses — like drug possession and low-level property offenses — as misdemeanors instead of felonies, which triggers cost savings from decreased incarceration costs.
The initiative then invests those savings into rehabilitation programs to treat mental health conditions and drug addiction, which are often the causes of criminogenic behavior. It also invests in education and job training to help low-level offenders turn their lives around, find employment, and avoid going back to prison.
These reforms will drive down our prison population and increase public safety. More importantly, it will address a more troubling cost that isn’t just about dollars: the impact of our system on people, families and communities.
So many low-level offenders are imprisoned in a system inadequate to treat addiction or mental health issues. Current policies saddle these individuals with a felony conviction, hindering their ability to obtain employment or an education in the future. This also hurts their families and the communities where they live.
Reforming our system provides an opportunity to better invest in programs that rehabilitate people and prevent crimes from happening in the first place, and return individuals to productive lives in the community.
It doesn’t just make sense from an economic and investment standpoint — it makes sense from a moral standpoint.
We are proud to launch this effort, and are asking Oklahomans everywhere to join us in saving taxpayer dollars and investing in more effective programs to make our communities safer and Oklahoma stronger.
Kris Steele is chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.