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Point: Overhauling criminal justice


Kris Steele May 23rd, 2012

Building on momentum from recent years, the Legislature this session enacted the most significant criminal justice reform of the modern era through House Bill 3052.

The bill funds strategic crime reduction initiatives, requires post-release supervision of all felons and initiates several strategies proven to control prison growth and reduce crime. It’s a tougher, smarter fight against crime.

This new policy was developed through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a nine-month, data-driven review of Oklahoma’s entire criminal justice system. Among the shortcomings uncovered in this analysis was the fact that despite a 41 percent increase in prison spending over the past decade, Oklahoma’s violent crime rate remained virtually static even as the nation’s fell 20 percent. Such outcomes are unsustainable in a state where prisons routinely operate near capacity.

The analysis also found that law enforcement officers per capita declined — particularly in our state’s largest cities, where most crime occurs. That’s not good for public safety. Oklahoma City is a prime example. In the past decade, the city’s violent crime rate rose 17 percent while law enforcement staffing per capita dropped 11 percent.

As Police Chief Bill Citty will attest, this has left police focusing more on basic calls for service rather than proactive crime prevention. As a remedy, HB 3052 will send grants to local law enforcement agencies so officers can engage in crime prevention efforts in addition to calls for service.

The justice reinvestment analysis also found 51 percent of felons are released from prison without supervision, leading to high recidivism rates. HB 3052 requires all former inmates to spend at least nine months under supervision programs that not only monitor their behavior, but also connect them with vital community services to help them reintegrate into a productive lifestyle rather than a cycle of crime.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed HB 3052 exactly one year after she received HB 2131, which places more low-risk, nonviolent offenders in alternative sentencing programs that are more effective and less expensive than traditional incarceration. HB 2131 expanded on HB 2998 from 2010, which allowed for alternative sentencing of certain female offenders.

In addition, a state question before voters in November would, if approved, remove the governor from the parole process for low-risk, nonviolent offenders, ending Oklahoma’s distinction as the only state requiring gubernatorial approval of all parolees. Combined, these policies will save more than $200 million over the next decade, while also increasing public safety.

All these measures won widespread bipartisan support in a state that has traditionally been hesitant to address its nation-leading incarceration rates and poor public safety rankings. The tide has turned. We’re now making decisions based on facts instead of decisions based on emotions and anecdotes that led to some of the problems these measures address.

But the work is not over. Implementing, expanding and sustaining these policies over the long term will be critical. If that can be done, Oklahoma will be a safer state with a more effective justice system.


Steele, R-Shawnee, is speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, representing House District 26.

 
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