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Morality and money: Criminal justice reform takes a step forward in Oklahoma

By   /   November 25, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

It’s wrong. It costs too much. Put those arguments together, and you have a potent political message on criminal justice reform, evidenced by the electoral success of a pair of initiatives in Oklahoma aimed at reducing incarceration rates and reallocating funding to drug treatment programs.

Right on Crime state director Andrew Speno characterized his organization’s support for questions 780 and 781, both of which were approved on election day, in primarily fiscal terms.

“We’re dumping all this money into the system, and when Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate of women and the second incarceration rate overall it tells us something: Oklahoma is not working and we need to fix it,” said Speno, whose organization bills itself as the “one-stop source for conservative ideas on criminal justice.”

The Lost Ogle

Andrew Speno of Right on Crime Oklahoma explains the fiscal necessity of criminal justice reform.

Speno and his organization have argued that ballot initiative 780 represents an important first step toward fixing the state’s fiscal problems.

“We faced a severe budget crisis last year, a $1.3 billion shortfall, so lawmakers don’t have a choice but to look at criminal justice reform just like they look at healthcare, every statute needs to be evaluated for its cost effectiveness,” he said.

The initiative, which was approved 58-42 percent, reclassifies a number of non-violent drug and theft related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Most notably the law reduces simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and increases the threshold for felony theft or forgery from $500 to $1,000.

The companion measure, the Rehabilitative Programs Fund Initiative, was approved 56-44 percent. It establishes a “County Community Safety Investment Fund” and empowers the state Office of Management and Enter­prise Services to calculate the amount of money saved as a result of the incarceration-reducing reform, and then reallocate that sum from the general fund to the investment fund. Money in the investment fund will then be spent on rehab programs such as drug and mental health treatment, professional training and educational initiatives.

Joining the conservatives of Right on Crime in support of both proposals were the liberals of the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU of Oklahoma

Allie Shin of the Oklahoma ACLU defends criminal justice reform on moral grounds.

Allie Shin, director of philanthropy and strategic initiatives at the ACLU of Oklahoma, lauded the approval of the initiatives as “an area where good fiscal policy and good moral policy align.”

Shin argued that support for the reforms hinges on the question of whether the public believes there are what Shin calls “spare Oklahomans,” or individuals who have forfeited their right or ability to serve as productive members of society, and who instead will remain a burden on society indefinitely.

“Rather than continuing to create felons for nonviolent offenses, we should decide if there are spare Oklahomans. I personally don’t think there are, and if there are not we should consider what we can do to help these people.”

Shin, like Speno, calls 780 “the right first step to make sure all Oklahomans get the help they deserve.

While the initiative is vague with regard to who will have the final say on the allocation of funds, it stipulates that the funds be dispersed proportionally according to the population of each county. According to Speno, counties will be given a significant degree of oversight with regard to how the money is spent.

Speno said the two ballot initiatives were largely being viewed as a “litmus test” by lawmakers eager to gauge the public’s appetite for serious criminal justice reform. And he suggested their success will open the door for further reforms now that legislators are confident voters are behind them.

‘Understand the ramifications’

While Speno and Shin celebrate what they see as the moral and fiscal benefits of the reforms, some in Oklahoma’s law enforcement community remain skeptical of the voter-approved changes even while expressing broad support for the principle of overhauling the system.

Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Mark Nelson said he has no problem with saving the state money and increasing treatment options for drug offenders. But he described the ballot initiatives as “some of the most lenient drug laws that the country has,” and added that the public does not “seem to understand the ramifications of these specific initiatives.”

Among those troubling ramifications is the lack of a habitual offender statute to ensure that authorities can protect the public from individuals who are arrested repeatedly for drug possession and property crimes perpetrated to support their drug addiction.

Nelson argued that confining prosecutors and law enforcement officials to the threat of a misdemeanor as leverage to coerce a change in behavior is insufficient. He pointed out that the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is one year. Because of Oklahoma’s overcrowded jails, inmates typically serve a fraction of that.

Nelson and others in  law enforcement remain doubtful that the threat of a few months in county jail will be sufficient to prompt an otherwise uncooperative person to assist in an investigation or to begin to address an addiction.

Speno is more confident in the wonder-working powers of positive reinforcement in behavior modification. He argued that while not all addicts want to get clean, many do, and research suggests that positive incentives such as the possibility of having one’s record expunged can serve as powerful tools in correcting destructive behavior.

Speno’s assertion regarding the efficacy of positive reinforcement is supported by the encouraging effects of similar reforms implemented in Texas, where in 2007 the state’s policymakers allocated $241 million for residential and non-residential treatment-oriented programs for non-violent offenders. In the year after these reforms were implemented, there was a 5 percent drop in murders, a 4.3 percent drop in robberies, and a 6.8 percent decline in forcible rapes. Additionally, the number of parolees convicted of a new crime declined 7.6 percent from 2007 to 2008, despite an increase in the number of parolees. 

Nelson acknowledged that the results of the Texas reforms are encouraging, but pointed out that Texas had a larger budget for treatment programs and maintained a habitual offender statute.

“We all want the same goal here, but you can’t put different ingredients in this pot and expect the same results as Texas,” Nelson said.

But he acknowledged that the public has spoken out in favor of significant criminal justice reform. “If this starts a conversation between the public and lawmakers,” he said, “then that would be a good thing.” 

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John Crowe is a Fall 2016 Journalism Fellow for Watchdog.org.