Journal Record editorial: Criminal justice reforms overdue

In July 1973, one of the worst prison riots in history occurred at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

The cause was overcrowding, poorly trained guards, and then-Gov. David Hall’s refusal to improve conditions by authorizing parole for nonviolent drug offenders.

One of the most important topics the business community wanted to see addressed this legislative session was criminal justice reform. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s 2017 Legislative Agenda was clear: “The Chamber supports legislation and funding for sentencing reforms and rehabilitation programs to ease the financial drain on Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, lessen the burden on jails and prisons throughout the state and allow non-violent offenders to enter the workforce more quickly,” it said.

“The Chamber supports the recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform.”

The 27 recommendations the task force drafted are aimed at reducing Oklahoma’s incarceration rate and easing the burden on taxpayers. The crime rate is at its lowest since 1968, yet the incarceration rate is higher than ever. If that seems incongruous, thank the laws that targeted so-called habitual offenders with mandatory minimum sentences and tough-on-crime bills that forced parole boards to keep inmates locked up until they’d served at least 85 percent of their sentences.

“Between FY2011 and FY2015, prison admissions grew 20 percent, with much of that growth driven by nonviolent offenders sentenced directly to prison,” the task force said in its report. “Three out of every four people entering prison in Oklahoma were sentenced for nonviolent crimes. Fifty-six percent of nonviolent offenders sentenced to prison had little or no serious criminal history.”

Criminal justice system reforms are long overdue, and representatives of every sector agree. Leaders in the mental health and substance abuse agencies, corrections officials, district attorneys, public defenders, police chiefs, the governor, social workers, and chambers of commerce broadly agree both on the need for reform and the reforms most necessary to keep a teetering system from collapsing.

The only opposition is at 23rd and Lincoln. Rep. Scott Briggs, R-Chickasha, is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and fervently opposes most reforms. House Speaker Charles McCall in January told business leaders the state’s incarceration rate merely showed Oklahoma’s dedication to public safety and Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz said then that he was in no hurry to reduce prison populations.

Legislators must get their heads out of their committee rooms and take action to ensure history does not repeat itself.

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