ICYMI: A Republican Crusader Takes on Oklahoma’s Prison Machine

We wanted to make sure you saw this Politico Magazine piece featuring Kris Steele, the former Republican Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and Executive Director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR).

Oklahoma has one of the nation’s highest rates of incarceration, incarcerating 1,079 people per 100,000, more people per capita than any other state when counting prisons, jails, ICE detention and juvenile lockup.

The article gives a glimpse into Steele’s life that led him to become one of the state’s leading criminal justice reform champions, and a close and detailed look at Oklahoma’s criminal justice reform journey.

One of Steele’s more recent efforts include advocating for State Question 805, which would end the use of sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenses, which keep Oklahomans locked up for decades, hurting families and devastating entire communities.

From the article:
“I refuse to believe Oklahomans are the worst people in the world,” Steele says. Rather, it’s a state suffering from addiction, trauma and poverty, and a political culture that prizes tough-minded approaches to social problems. He argues the penal system merely makes that situation worse. When I visited him in Oklahoma before the Covid outbreak, Steele told me that he loves his home state, “but we’re awfully quick to look at incarceration as a solution. It tears families apart, it creates instability. It makes the situation much worse.”

… A Baptist minister and fiscal conservative, Steele ultimately found his calling in an issue that was not a legislative priority of his party: reforming the prison system… OCJR’s highest-profile effort is the ballot initiative called State Question 805, a constitutional amendment that it wants to put before voters in November that would end the practice of sentence enhancements, which can double the length of prison terms for second offenses.

… What [Steele] saw, as he describes it, wasn’t just a massively expensive system but a system that was criminalizing and perpetuating trauma. One story stuck with him: A woman who was in a car crash that broke her back and killed her 3-year-old son. She got painkillers for her back, and she kept taking them to numb her grief. Soon she was penniless, distraught, addicted and in prison for trying to sell stolen items to a pawn shop. “Here was a woman who very obviously experienced tremendous trauma and needed help and we didn’t help her,” Steele says. “We reacted to the behavior rather than to the cause of the behavior.”

Oklahoma voters strongly support efforts to reduce the number of people the state incarcerates, having approved State Question 780 and 781 in 2016, ballot measures that reclassified certain simple drug possession and nonviolent property crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors instead of felonies, and mandated that the cost savings would go to drug treatment and rehabilitation services. This led to “the governor’s recent spate of commutations—including the record-setting 527 in a single day in November.”

Read the full Politico Magazine piece HERE.

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