Rhonda Bear smiles as she makes her way through a crowded She Brews Coffee House in Claremore after being pardoned by Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday. MIKE SIMONS/Tulsa World

Last week, Gov. Kevin Stitt officially pardoned Rhonda Bear, the woman whose advocacy won his heart for the cause of criminal justice reform in Oklahoma.

Bear’s rap sheet started with drug-related convictions in 1998. In 2001, a Sequoyah County judge sentenced her to 10 years for three drug possession charges but added a stipulation: If she completed a drug treatment program while incarcerated, the remainder of the sentence would be suspended.

An addict since age 12, Bear managed to get her life under control behind bars.

Now she runs She Brews, a Claremore coffee shop, and the His House Outreach Ministries transitional living program.

When she got the chance to talk to then-gubernatorial candidate Kevin Stitt last year, she took it. Stitt says Bear’s witness won his heart for the cause of criminal justice reform.

A businessman, Stitt recognizes that Oklahoma’s retributive justice system is unsustainable. It is bankrupting the state, but isn’t making anyone any safer.

As Bear’s life demonstrates, salvaging lives by addressing underlying issues, such as addiction, is a far more promising path. Stitt has repeatedly saluted Bear’s example, including in his inauguration speech.

The same week that he pardoned Bear, Stitt signed commutations for more than 500 inmates serving felony sentences for minor property and drug crimes that are no longer felonies in Oklahoma. That action ended Oklahoma’s dubious position as the place with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

In the world of criminal justice reform, that counts as a good start. It’s a success that trails back to Bear convincing candidate Stitt that the state had to find a better path.

Stitt’s pardon recognizes that Bear’s life shouldn’t be defined by the worst things she’s done. Her faith, hard work and her leadership have helped correct the state’s course. We join Stitt and Bear’s supporters in celebrating her sobriety and her accomplishments.

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