A criminal justice reform panel heard firsthand accounts Wednesday of three methods of disrupting Oklahoma’s prison pipeline: intervene with traumatized or abused youths and foster children, provide mentors, and lay out alternative paths away from drugs and crime.
The RESTORE Task Force convened publicly for the first time at the state attorney general’s downtown Tulsa office Wednesday. Gov. Kevin Stitt announced the formation of the 15-member body in May, calling it the Criminal Justice Reentry, Supervision, Treatment and Opportunity Reform Task Force — or RESTORE.
The task force noted that its subcommittees have met privately since June to explore various aspects of criminal justice reform and to hear from diverse voices on how to re-imagine the criminal justice system.
The majority of the two-hour gathering Wednesday afternoon was dedicated to three women who faced trauma from young ages and endured horrors such as abuse, drug addiction, family member suicides, prostitution and rape.
Task force members inquired about factors that served as catalysts for their turning points. Unconditional love, a mentor, and being not just shown but also guided through a positive path forward were the replies.
Ebonie Doyle described how nearly her whole life has been lonely, hopeless and without guidance or education. She struggles with mental health problems and raising her three kids.
“To walk through this cruel world with no support, no family — oh, my gosh, I don’t even know how I made it,” Doyle said. “I don’t understand how I made it. I should have been dead, especially the time when I got raped and stabbed.”
Doyle said her life struggles began with missing a lot of school as a kid in Oklahoma City when her mother went to prison. She was raised by her grandmother until the roles reversed as her grandmother’s health declined.
She eventually was separated from her younger brother in foster care and was abused. As a 12-year-old, Doyle would walk up to potential adoptive parents and ask to go with them, but they always wanted the cute, young children, she said.
She wonders how different her life would be if just one had said yes or anyone had taken an interest in her and her future.
Craving love, Doyle ended up in prostitution at age 15 because a man who feigned romantic interest in her forced her to do so. In and out of jail, she moved throughout 17 states.
Her turnaround began a few years ago at a homeless shelter through a chance encounter with a church mission group that led her to Cleveland County Sheriff Todd Gibson and his family.
Before that, “I’d never experienced unconditional love. Period,” Doyle said of Gibson — seated across the room from her as a task force member — and his family.
Similarly, Melodie Mills told the panel how no one ever really asked her if she was OK or whether she might need help.
Her father died by suicide in front of her when she was 5. Within a year, three of his siblings died the same way. She described herself as a “problem child” who grew into a 10-time convicted felon and got high every day.
“Nobody ever said, ‘Hey, you need some counseling; you’ve been through a lot of trauma,’ ” Mills said. “It’s the traumas. Post-traumatic stress. If you don’t work on it, it’s going to keep rearing up. I was running from it.
“I was afraid; I was kidnapped, and I’ve been raped. I was just afraid, but … really I just needed some attention.”
Mills emphasized that it takes only one person to save a youth’s life, so mentors and case workers must be inside schools to ask the questions she never heard. There’s recess and math, but what about a life-skills class?
One can’t simply release a person from prison and tell them “good luck,” because recovery and rehabilitation are long-term, she said, adding that the state needs medical detoxification facilities that are able to house addicts for a year. And housing programs need additional support services to keep a person afloat after being homeless for a decade, she said.
“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, the problem is solved,’ ” Mills said. “Nope. The problem’s only beginning, because they don’t know what to do. Those walls cave in on them.”
Oklahoma City Police Lt. Wayland Cubit, who has worked with children and families the past 12 years, told the task force he doesn’t see that harsher sentences have deterred crime.
Cubit said a gap that exists between service providers and those who need services can at least partially be explained by the tendency of many people not to ask for assistance until they are in crisis. He wonders how the state or social services can offer help before a person finally seeks it out.
The need to provide mentors for people of all ages and walks of life is a common theme he hears.
“What if we were providing mentors at every stage and every step?” Cubit asked. “Life coaches, people with life experience or knowledge. Re-entry programs exist — but what if we started re-entry at entry?”
The RESTORE Task Force is to submit criminal justice reform recommendations by Dec. 6 for consideration in Oklahoma’s 2020 legislative session.