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Counterpoint: : Real reform is still wanting


Ryan Kiesel May 23rd, 2012

House Bill 3052 has been touted as one of the most significant criminal justice reform measures in Oklahoma’s recent history.

But even in its beginning, the legislation’s reforms were modest at best.

In its final version, HB 3052 is a reform bill in name only — more notable for what it does not do than for what it does. There is even the potential that it could dig us deeper into our current prison crisis by creating a grant program that incentivizes police to make more arrests and by continuing to rely unnecessarily on incarceration as punishment for technical violations of parole.

This is not the right direction for a state that already locks up more people than every state but two, and leads the nation in incarcerating women. Overcrowded prisons are bursting at the seams and prison officials have warned for years about dangerous officer-to-inmate ratios. Corrections costs continue to eat up more and more tax revenue and are growing at an unsustainable rate. From public safety to crafting the budget, how policymakers address criminal justice reform will play an increasingly important role in Oklahoma’s future.

To that end, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma applauds House Speaker Kris Steele for his genuine commitment to reform. Steele has dedicated a large part of his legislative career toward building a criminal justice system that recognizes redemption and acknowledges that substance addiction and mental illness play a significant role in the system.

Unfortunately, a tough-on-crime (and not necessarily smart) attitude continues to stand in the way of real reform. We saw an example of this misguided stance when the Senate removed language in HB 3052 that would have offered some inmates more incentive to rehabilitate and would have meant significant savings for the state.

We’ve also seen expectations for criminal justice reform plummet in the midst of tough-on-crime rhetoric. We have to remind ourselves that the passage of watered-down legislation is no reason to pop open the Champagne.

In light of the fanfare around HB 3052, perhaps the greatest danger would be for future policymakers to look at this bill as having addressed the serious problems with our criminal justice system.

It has not. We call on the policymakers of today to send a clear message to the policymakers of tomorrow that the work remains unfinished.

We also call on the people of Oklahoma to demand real and meaningful reforms. The state should join a growing list of states like Texas, Georgia and Kentucky with “tough on crime” political environments that have nevertheless balanced the need for public safety with smart reforms.

The need for reform is too great to continue to confuse mass incarceration with increased public safety. Oklahoma’s future depends on substituting that mindset with evidence-based reforms. When we do that, we will see reform worth celebrating.

Kiesel is executive director of ACLU Oklahoma.


 
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