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Oklahoma Just Let Everybody Out Of Jail On Purpose, What A Bunch Of Libs
Yesterday was a great day and also just a start.
The state of Oklahoma freed 462 inmates from prison yesterday after their sentences were commuted, in what's widely being called the biggest single-day release of prisoners in US history. We should note, however, that the New York Times fastidiously says it's merely "one of the largest," because what about that time Andrew Johnson pardoned all the Confederates? Either way, it's a huge step toward reform for Oklahoma, which the Times notes " continues to vie with Louisiana for the highest per-capita imprisonment rate in the country."
In 2016, Oklahoma voters passed State Questions 780 and 781, a pair of referenda that redefined a lot of drug possession and low-level property crimes under $1000 from being felonies to misdemeanors. The law also required the state to apply the savings from prison costs to drug treatment and rehab, and isn't that smart? Then, earlier this year, the state legislature voted to apply the 2016 law retroactively to those convicted under the old laws, and the mass commutation was finally approved last week by the state's pardon and parole board. The board considered over 800 applications from inmates and approved 527, but 65 are still being held because they face charges in other states, or have problems with their immigration status. Oklahoma may be dipping a toe into sentencing reform, but it's no sanctuary state.
The pardons and parole board's executive director, Steve Bickley, said Monday's get-out-of-jail party was way bigger than the previous single-day record for prison releases, when Barack Obama commuted the drug sentences of 330 federal prisoners back in 2017. Wouldn't that be a neat record for other states to try and break?
Oklahoma isn't just kicking people out the prison doors and wishing them good luck, either. To help them reintegrate into their communities, the state is making sure released inmates are issued a state ID or driver's license, and also held over 20 "reentry fairs" in prisons to get soon-to-be-released folks hooked up with social services and other resources. Churches and nonprofits also took part in the fairs to help people connect with housing, and education, and jobs.
Beyond the basic fairness of getting people out of prison for minor, nonviolent offenses, there's also the considerable fiscal savings for the state. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said the state Department of Corrections anticipates having some 2,000 empty beds by the end of the year, at a savings of just under $12 million a year. And no, we didn't see any reports that every penny of that will go into drug treatment/rehab. This being Oklahoma, color us doubtful?
There's still a long way to go to reform Oklahoma criminal justice, especially in a state where Gittin' Tuff on Crime has long been a fundamental part of Republican electoral strategy. Former state legislator Kris Steele (no relation to the dossier guy, we assume ), the head of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, told the Washington Post he's seen a real shift in how candidates talk about prisons, with far more emphasis on reform, and he thinks that's due to several reasons:
One is a realization that over-incarceration is the definition of inefficient government, producing neither increased public safety nor less crime for the cost. There's also the issue of faith: The messages of criminal justice reform align with the same values at the center of Christianity, such as redemption, grace, forgiveness and second chances.
But a third factor Steele identifies is more stark: Oklahoma's incarceration rate is more than 10 times that of Canada, according to the Tulsa-based nonprofit think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute, meaning more than 1 in 100 Oklahoma adults is locked up at any given time.
"The sad reality is, we've reached a point of saturation, given our high incarceration rate: If it's not your loved one, chances are, it's a friend," Steele said. "The proximity, in many ways, has changed people's thinking."
Of course, Steele also points out, there are still plenty of local cops and district attorneys and Blue Lives Matter folks who ran for office on GIT TUFF and adamantly oppose any hint of reform. Whether Rs like Stitt and his allies in the lege will be able to pass further reforms remains to be seen. It's not hard to imagine a backlash where righties insist the crimers will be running wild in the streets and Oklahoma will look just like Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco. Wouldn't want to let Louisiana be more punitive than the Sooner state, after all.
Here's hoping the current coalition of liberal and conservative reformers can keep making progress in Oklahoma, and that enough voters remain convinced that just locking everyone up forever isn't really a solution.
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