Criminal Justice

Greg Treat | June 28, 2016

Bipartisan Consensus Emerges Around Broken Criminal Justice System

Greg Treat

Broken%20System-07.pngBy Greg Treat

In an age of increasing political polarization, consensus is hard to come by. But sometimes when a problem is so glaring and so damaging on multiple fronts, all of us see the same thing no matter what ideological lens we are peering through. In Oklahoma, criminal justice is one of those issues.

The numbers speak for themselves: First in the nation in female incarceration rates. Second in male incarceration.

One in 10 Oklahoma children has a parent who has been or is currently in prison. That’s 96,000 kids.

Oklahoma prisons are at 123 percent capacity, rendering them unsanitary and unsafe for both guards and inmates. The national ratio of inmates to prison guards is 5 to 1; in Oklahoma it’s 11 to 1, the highest in the country.

If that’s the birds-eye view, the street-level view is even more disturbing, and the damage being done to both children and adults is heartbreaking.

At a recent press conference hosted by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, former director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics Daryl Weaver described an all-too-common drug bust where terrified children looked on as law enforcement agents arrested their parents and accidentally overturned a fishbowl, sending the family goldfish flying across the room.

Weaver says he still thinks about the kids and the look on their faces, and how that trauma may have affected the rest of their lives. “There has got to be a better way,” he told the audience.

Adam Luck, former director of Oklahoma’s Right on Crime project and current Department of Corrections board member, says the situation inside of most Oklahoma prison facilities is far worse than most people realize. He describes visiting a facility meant for 50 occupants that houses 200. “Imagine what that does, just to their plumbing,” he says. “It backs up every day and floods the building with raw sewage.”

It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows, and the crisis of over-incarceration in Oklahoma is no exception. In fact, an almost unprecedented coalition of interests has come together in an effort to push reforms.

The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA), for instance, has worked successfully to broaden the coalition of justice reformers to include activists who have traditionally ignored “adult” issues like criminal justice.

“The people we are locking up for nonviolent offenses are moms and dads,” said OICA executive director Terry Smith. “Many of the kids end up in state custody. Almost all of them end up growing up in poverty. When we put this many people in prison, we are gutting our families and leaving children without the love, stability, and resources they need to become successful adults.”

The ACLU and OCPA are working together—a “politics makes strange bedfellows” scenario if there ever was one—to support a ballot initiative eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders.

The District Attorneys Council has integrated itself into Governor Mary Fallin’s Justice Reform task force and played a key role in pushing legislation aimed at reducing the prison population.

The Oklahoma City Chamber has created a task force, led by Thunder owner Clay Bennett, to support criminal justice initiatives and address the city’s crumbling jail.

Lastly, former House Speaker Kris Steele is leading a coalition of faith leaders to push reforms emphasizing rehabilitation.

The joint efforts of these groups are paying off. In late April, Governor Fallin signed a flurry of bills (three of which I am proud to say I authored) aimed at reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders and offering alternatives to traditional incarceration, such as community sentencing.

All of these reforms are helping to slowly bend the curve, but it is clear the state can and should do more.

Making additional progress will require a long-term commitment from our legislative leaders and our governor, including our next governor.

It will also require a long-term commitment from conservatives to embrace change and a smarter, more effective policy approach.

As a proud conservative, I am hoping for that outcome. To a skeptic, I would say this: At the core of the conservative movement is a belief that any amount of public money—much less the billions we spend on our corrections system—has to actually accomplish a goal and generate a positive outcome.

By almost any measure, our current criminal justice policies have failed that test. When the public policy outcomes are this bad, people of all ideological stripes must coalesce around reform efforts.

Moving forward, conservatives are uniquely positioned to ensure those reforms are sound investments that deliver real results.

Greg Treat (R-Oklahoma City) represents District 47 in the Oklahoma Senate.

Greg Treat


Greg Treat (R-Oklahoma City) represents District 47 in the Oklahoma Senate.

Loading Next