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A smarter criminal justice system



Oklahoma leads the nation in incarcerating women and outranks all but a few states in its overall incarceration rate. Our incarceration rate has doubled since 1989, and 50 percent of those in prison are there for nonviolent property or drug crimes — at a cost of more than $460 million annually. Each year we pass laws to make it easier to end up in prison but harder to reintegrate upon release.

It’s time for us to examine whether this approach has actually made us safer.

While House Bill 3052 falls short of the bold reforms our broken system demands, it is a promising first step. To make the most of this first step, however, it needs some commonsense amendments so that it truly provides meaningful and cost-effective solutions to our mass incarceration crisis.

Under current law, a judge can modify certain prisoners’ sentences within the first year of incarceration if the inmate has shown a commitment to rehabilitation by participating in substance-abuse treatment or completing educational courses. Unfortunately, the waiting lists at prisons to enter these programs often exceed a year. Recognizing this reality, HB 3052 would expand the time for sentence modification to two years.

However, the bill adds a provision allowing district attorneys veto power over who gets a modified sentence. Considering DAs rarely agree to such modifications, this addition renders the reform essentially meaningless. It inappropriately turns the prosecutor from an advocate into the decision-maker. This power granted to DAs should be removed. Additionally, some of the expected cost-savings from the bill should be invested into rehabilitative programs so that prisoners don’t have to wait years to access them.

We also support HB 3052’s concept of providing alternatives to revoking parole when someone commits a minor parole infraction. Unfortunately, one of the alternatives offered by the legislation is sending a person to a newly created intermediate sanction facility. We urge legislators to rely on community service or treatment as the first option, leaving re-incarceration as the last resort. Instead of building new intermediate sanction facilities, we should be creating and funding more treatment and vocational programs to reduce recidivism.

Now, more than ever, law enforcement officers are responding to calls from individuals in crises related to mental health or drug addiction. Rather than creating a competitive grant program to encourage police officers to make more arrests, HB 3052 should be amended to fund critically needed treatment programs and mental health programs that actually reduce recidivism and protect our communities.

We applaud the intent behind HB 3052, but these suggested amendments will move us closer to our common goal of a smarter, evidence-based criminal justice system. Above all else, we should not pretend our work is done with one bill. Politicians in both parties must move boldly in the future, shake off the shackles of expediency and embrace reforms that protect our tax dollars and, more important, our communities.

Kiesel is executive director of ACLU of Oklahoma. You can follow him on Twitter at @capitolkiesel.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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