Walter Evans, police chief of the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa

“People, not Prisons.”

This is a message inscribed on a T-shirt I proudly wear, a gift from the American Civil Liberties Union. So many people complimented me on the phrase, I wish I coined it myself … but frankly, I am not that clever.

Last summer, I assisted the ACLU in its campaign for prison reform. We spent several days in the searing Oklahoma heat, knocking on strange doors, hoping to raise awareness about our state’s dismal incarceration rates. Notwithstanding the T-shirt’s amazing fit, each time I wear it I am reminded of the inequities in our justice system and lunacy of investing in prisons, not people.

For 30 years I served as a law enforcement officer and for almost half of my career, I put scores of people behind bars.

I did not give it much thought until I watched a 23-year-old relative, who was also a first-time offender, receive a 25-year sentence while his co-defendants received probation for the same crime. He is a decent husband and father with no prior criminal history, but one bad decision changed his life forever. Observing this gross inequity changed my perspective about blind justice.

Punishment for his crime, including incarceration, was certainly in order; however, I question the rationale for an excessive punishment for him, and a light punishment for his co-defendants. I shudder to even think race was a factor, but with his co-defendants being white, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion.

I doubt what happened to him is a one off. If it is not, then there is little wonder why our prison populations are disproportionately comprised of people of color.

In February, the Oklahoma Policy Institute reported “Communities of color are disproportionately affected by incarceration in Oklahoma. One in 15 adult black men in Oklahoma is in prison, giving us the highest rate of black incarceration in the nation…Hispanics make … 9% of the state population and 15% of its prisoners.”

My relative’s story gives me some perspective to these statistics. If these numbers are accurate, then they are shameful and do not speak well of Oklahomans.

Last year, I attended a seminar in which the presenter stated our monetary investments in prison construction is based upon the number of students in the third grade. This seems counterintuitive. I believe a smarter investment would be to invest in the lives of these young people and show them alternatives to the prison industrial complex.

One group that embraces this concept is the Men’s Ministry at First Baptist Church North Tulsa. For the past two years, the group conducted a hugely successful program called the Young Men’s Conference. In this one-day event, the group works with middle schoolers from across the city.

With the support of loving parents and Tulsa Public Schools, the youth received mentoring on a variety of subjects, to include, money management, personal hygiene, career choices and personal grooming. I gave a presentation called “Po Po Light,” a talk designed to show how to have positive interactions with law enforcement.

I reluctantly taught this class for fear of being heckled (I was, at times), but amazingly, the information was well received. This suggests young men want to behave correctly and avoid activities that lead to incarceration. If good people invest a little time, talent and treasure in them, we can affect positive change and build stronger communities.

I am convinced we can reduce the prison population by investing in the lives of young men and women early. The return on our investment will come one by one but will add up — one less victim, one more two-parent household, one more gainfully employed taxpayer ... .

Walter J. Evans is a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by board members appear most weeks in this space.

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