By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – A former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and a former U.S. congressman offered persuasive arguments Tuesday for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma.
But the person who spoke most passionately during a press conference at the Capitol organized by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform was former prison inmate No. 377488. Rhonda Bear spoke for just a few minutes but offered convincing evidence that Oklahoma’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate has been devastating to people, families and communities.
Bear, who served time for drug possession, said that when she got out of prison she had only a few dollars and a small box of possessions, but her greatest difficulty was, and remains, overcoming the “label” of being a felon, No. 377488. She said former inmates convicted even of low-level, non-violent crimes run into huge problems trying to get homes to live in, jobs or even training to potentially find jobs. Always, she said, the label of being a former inmate seems to get in the way.
Bear told about a woman, a drug addict, sentenced to serve 30 years in Oklahoma for committing a theft of about $30. Her three children ended up in foster care, it cost the state an estimated $500,000 to keep her locked up, and by the time she got out her potential for leading any semblance of a normal life was ruined.
“These women can do a lot more but are held back by the label,” she said.
Former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, who now leads Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said Bear’s story is not at all unique. For decades, he said, Oklahoma followed a “tough-on-crime” policy that many believed would make the state safer and more prosperous.
“Fear of crime was the driver and increasingly harsh punishment was the response,” he said.
By the 1990s, Oklahoma had the highest female incarceration rate in the nation. A few years later, the state surpassed Louisiana to have the highest incarceration rate overall in the country. It’s gotten to the point now, Steele said, that the “tough on crime” policy has had the exact opposite of its intended effect. Not only have tens of thousands of people who committed low-level crimes had their lives irreversibly thrown off course, their families have been torn apart, other citizens have had to shoulder huge expenses of keeping people locked up, and Oklahoma has lost out on reaping taxes and other economic benefits of having people at work rather than in prison.
Greater Oklahoma City Chamber President Roy Williams echoed that, adding that Oklahoma’s title as the nation’s leader in incarceration makes it difficult for business and industry recruiters to attract investment to the state.
“It truly tarnishes our national reputation,” he said.
Williams said the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, State Chamber of Oklahoma and Tulsa Regional Chamber all support reform measures advocated by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
Steele outlined five bills currently being considered by the Oklahoma Legislature:
- House Bill 1269, which would allow courts to modify felony sentences to misdemeanors, possibly leading to the release of many people imprisoned for simple drug possession. Oklahoma voters last year passed State Question 780, taking felony prosecution off the table for minor drug offenses.
- House Bills 2273 and 2218, which would limit the time some offenders might be incarcerated and improve supervision to reduce recidivism and costs.
- House Bill 2009, which would limit “sentence enhancements” for non-violent offenses.
- House Bill 1100, which would offer specific definitions of what “possession with intent to distribute” means. More clarity would prevent overcharging and inconsistent charging.
- Senate Bill 252, which would reform the state’s “cash bail” system that has resulted in many people who lack resources being locked up even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime.
“Oklahomans want to get out of No. 1 in incarceration, and we can do that right here, right now,” Steele said.
Former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts also spoke. He said the time for criminal justice reform has come not only for Oklahoma but for the nation as a whole. He noted that the number of federal inmates has increased by tenfold since 1980 and that fully 40 percent of people incarcerated in federal prisons are there for low-level non-violent drug offenses.