By Mary Fallin
As governor of Oklahoma, I’ve seen first-hand the profound impact incarceration has had on our families, children, communities and state.
Our first priority will always be keeping the public safe from dangerous people, but now we’re seeing our state prisons filled to 112 percent of their capacity, with nearly 27,000 people behind bars. Fully one-half of inmates are behind bars for drug-related and other nonviolent crimes.
I’ve been in our state prisons and visited those who are serving time. I’ve met people like Amanda Spicer, who started drinking alcohol at home at age 11. For the next 14 years, her addiction escalated to include narcotics, prescription drugs and eventually, methamphetamine.
Amanda served time in prison in her early 20s and when she returned to her family, she found they had lost their home. She turned to meth again as they lived out of hotels and trash bags. At age 25, Amanda discovered she was pregnant and knew she had to change. She begged her attorney to help her get into Women in Recovery, a program she had previously refused to consider. Amanda now has her GED, and is taking classes at Tulsa Community College with a goal of becoming a faith-based therapist for recovering addicts.
After hearing stories of offenders like Amanda, and seeing the lifelong struggles that often ripple out over generations, I knew my priority as governor would be to ensure we had more successful outcomes like Amanda’s.
Oklahoma’s drug laws haven’t deterred substance abuse. Though well intentioned, they have often sent nonviolent offenders to prison for years, where they live alongside violent offenders whose bad influences can make them better criminals rather than better citizens. Obviously, this is bad news for our entire state, for when these people get out of prison, they will likely return to crime. And that’s not making us safer.
It’s imperative that we modernize our justice system to change this dynamic and provide meaningful help to break the cycle of addiction that is tearing families apart. We can do this without jeopardizing public safety.
In April, I signed four justice reform bills that will bring about effective changes. One reduces the mandatory-minimum punishment for drug offenders charged only with possession, while reducing the maximum sentence, which had been life in prison. Another raises the felony threshold for property crimes to $1,000, instead of $500. The third provides for broader use of drug courts and community sentencing. And the fourth gives prosecutors discretion to charge certain lower level crimes as misdemeanors, rather than felonies.
These bills are the result of the work of the Oklahoma Justice Reform Steering Committee, which I formed in January 2015 at the start of my second term as governor. I recently formed another task force to develop data-driven reforms for Oklahoma’s justice system,with technical assistance from the Crime and Justice Institute and Pew Charitable Trusts.
I have asked committee members to develop more comprehensive reforms to address substance abuse and mental health issues. Offering treatment or other rehabilitative services, in custody and in the community, can help change lives and allow those who have made a mistake a second chance so they can contribute to society as sober, healthy adults ready to support themselves and their families. That in turn will reduce poverty, keep families together and help people with mental health and substance abuse problems get their lives back on track.
The recidivism rate for offenders sent to drug court is just one-fourth of the rate for those sent to prison. In addition, it costs the state nearly $18,500 a year to incarcerate an inmate, but only $5,000 a year to send an addict through drug court for treatment. So not only is this path more effective, it’s less expensive.
For those who reenter society from prison, finding employment after a felony conviction is a daunting challenge. But a job is a critical and necessary component in reducing recidivism and helping former inmates lead a productive life after prison. State hiring policies should allow full and fair consideration of these applicants when possible.
To that end, in late February, I signed an executive order, known to many as “Ban the Box,” mandating that state agencies eliminate questions about prior felony convictions from employment applications for most state jobs.
Oklahoma officials are working to make sure we hold those who harm our communities accountable, while believing in the power of redemption for those who have earned a second chance.
Along with Texas, Georgia, Kentucky and other red states, Oklahoma has been in the vanguard for justice reform, and I was proud to work alongside some of my fellow governors to make this short film, Changing Laws, Changing Lives, which tells the story of our successes.
But justice reform is more than just a bipartisan state issue. It’s a federal issue, too. It’s time for Congress to follow the lead of the states and pass federal justice reform this fall.
Mary Fallin, a Republican, is now in her second-term as the governor of Oklahoma.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Times.