Oklahoma has made significant progress on criminal justice reform in the past few years.
This month, Oklahoma saw the largest single-day commutation in our nation’s history. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended, and Gov. Kevin Stitt approved, the commutation of more than 500 people serving time for drug possession and low-level property crimes. Oklahomans laid the groundwork for this historic moment by passing State Question 780, which reclassified these crimes as misdemeanors. Lawmakers followed the will of the voters by passing reform to make SQ 780 retroactive.
While a monumental and historic step forward, Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis remains. Oklahoma has the second highest rate of imprisonment in the country and taxpayers still spend nearly half a billion dollars on the prison system each year.
Furthermore, compared to the national average, Oklahoma sends nearly twice as many women to prison per capita, and our state has had one of the highest female imprisonment rates in the country for nearly three decades. Because women are the primary caregivers of children in the home, the incarceration crisis is especially harmful to Oklahoma families and communities.
More needs to be done. And with the recent criminal justice wins, this is the perfect time to keep up the state’s momentum.
One of the biggest reasons for the incarceration crisis is Oklahoma’s use of sentence enhancements and extreme prison sentences. I have witnessed this firsthand from my seat on the parole board. The length of sentences I have seen in our state are disturbing. Compared to other states, people in Oklahoma spend nearly 70% longer in prison for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes.
Research shows that the long prison sentences do not make us safer. Sentence enhancements impose a huge cost on taxpayers and the economy without improving public safety. Additionally, as I have seen firsthand from my experience working at the Center for Employment Opportunities, the longer the prison sentence, the more long term and far reaching the collateral consequences.
Last week, a diverse, bipartisan coalition filed a constitutional ballot initiative in Oklahoma that would end the use of sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenses and allow people who have already received an extreme sentence to petition the court for relief.
There is strong support for this common-sense reform. Recent polling reveals that two-thirds of Oklahoma voters support the proposed state question. In fact, support cuts across party lines with strong majorities of Republicans (68%) and Democrats (67%) saying they would vote for the measure, if it was on the ballot today.
We must continue to build on the hard work of the governor, Legislature, grassroots groups and voters. By supporting this important ballot initiative, Oklahoma voters have another opportunity to advance common-sense criminal justice reform to correct excessive sentences, reduce the prison population and let Oklahoma families start to heal.
Kelly Doyle is an Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board member and deputy executive director at the Center for Employment Opportunities, which works to reduce recidivism and increase employment for people coming home from prison.