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Next Steps for Criminal Justice Reform

January 1, 2017 - 3:12pm CST

By Trent England

In 2016, Oklahoma legislators and voters supported some key criminal justice reforms. More work remains, however, to break the cycle of criminality and incarceration. The legislature should take action in 2017 to improve opportunities for offenders and their families. At the same time, district attorneys and other law enforcement leaders should come to the table to help make the reforms work.

In the 2016 legislative session, the legislature made it easier for Oklahomans coming out of prison to get a job by reducing some restrictions on employment and driver’s licenses. Together, measures passed by the legislature and State Questions 780 and 781 passed by voters reclassified many nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanor crimes. These changes should direct fewer people to state prisons, leave fewer people with the scarlet letter of a felony conviction, and make it easier for people coming out of prison or jail to find productive work.

One of the remaining problems with Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is the high level of fees and interest charged to many offenders. The idea of a “user pays” justice system has superficial appeal, but it makes no sense to drive indigent people with poor prospects into crippling debt. In the end, taxpayers still pay, but get less for their trouble when those returning to society are unable to support themselves and their families.

The legislature needs to reduce the burden of fees on indigent defendants. Politicians should be honest with constituents about who really pays for the criminal justice system. No one should be incarcerated because he or she is unable to pay debts imposed by the court system. Instead, the objective should be to maximize the potential for tax-consuming convicts to become tax-paying citizens. This is the real way people who impose costs on the justice system can pay it back.

The cycle of criminality and incarceration is not just personal, it is also intergenerational. According to a university study, children who have a parent in prison are three times more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system themselves. Another study found that a child whose father is in prison is nearly six times more likely than other children to be expelled from school. Legislators can act in 2017 to improve the prospects for children with a parent in prison, based on previous successful legislation.

In early 2016, the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the popular Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Act. This program is open to any Oklahoma parent with a school-age child who has a disability and is on an Individualized Education Program (IEP). These parents can redirect the state’s educational expenditures to a private school. This opens up a much more diverse set of options to meet these students’ unique educational needs.

The legislature should create a new program, modeled on the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships, for children who have a parent in prison, in jail, or on probation. These children are at a unique disadvantage. Breaking the cycle of criminality and incarceration is key to reducing the long-term costs of the criminal justice system and to reducing future crimes. It makes sense to open every door that might provide a pathway for their future success.

When voters passed State Questions 780 and 781, they spoke loudly and clearly to legislators, district attorneys, and other policymakers. Warehousing people with drug addiction or mental illness is not the purpose of the criminal justice system or a good use of tax dollars. Bankrupting people with court fees is no way to return people to a productive life. Oklahomans are tough on crime, but also believe in redemption and common sense public policy.

Trent England serves as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he also is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for the Advancement of Liberty and directs the Center for the Constitution & Freedom and the Save Our States project. He also hosts a radio program, The Trent England Show, from 7-9 a.m. every weekday on Oklahoma’s AM 1640, “The Eagle.”