Budget & Tax, Criminal Justice

Free Market Friday: Safety through empowerment

December 18, 2015

Jonathan Small

News has come that lawmakers will have $900 million less than they’d like to spend next year. Knee-jerk reactions will be to focus on the revenue side of the equation. However, the responsible approach is to focus on expenditures – including the implementation of transformational reforms. All too often, reform efforts are set aside as the focus shifts to budget negotiations. Such timidity this session would be unwise and will hurt vulnerable Oklahomans.

The economic and state budget realities once again show the necessity of prioritizing what government does and focusing on the missions – and the outcomes – rather than simply defending the status quo. Now is the time to innovate.

An area ripe for reform is our prisons and jails. It makes no sense to throw people with mental health or substance abuse problems into prisons. Oklahoma can be both tough and smart on crime, diverting some offenders into treatment and community supervision. This is often far cheaper than prison, which costs taxpayers an average of about $15,000 per inmate per year. We also know that keeping families together and keeping people working helps reduce demands for government spending.

One transformational change would be to reclassify some non-violent felony crimes as misdemeanor crimes. This would mean shorter sentences and more options for treatment. It would also prevent the violent offenders who are in our prisons (and belong there) from victimizing or mentoring people who would pose little or no threat to our communities.

Making it easier for these offenders to return to work is another priority. State licensing laws should not prevent people who have served their time, especially for relatively minor crimes, from getting a job. If a non-violent offender had a license in good standing before going to jail or prison, state law needs to provide a reasonable pathway to re-obtain the license. The policy goal should be to get people back to work.

Lawmakers might also consider those currently in prison for non-violent offenses and in need of mental health or substance abuse treatment. Working together, state leaders could develop a pilot program to transition non-violent offenders who demonstrate the ability to reintegrate successfully.

It’s time to make Oklahoma better by getting people back to work and families back together.