By Andrew Speno
Oklahoma stands on the brink of a monumental success with the potential to define our state for decades to come. A task force of lawmakers and stakeholders put out recommendations to decrease our bloated prison population, save billions in taxes, and increase public safety. But one step in the wrong direction will crush that success into a dismal failure that will leave our children holding the bag.
Almost everyone agrees Oklahoma’s corrections system is unsustainable. Not everyone agrees on what the best solution is but almost everyone acknowledges we have a serious problem. Almost everyone. And in this legislative session, “almost” is a colossal problem. Bills like House Bill 1482, which would cripple every reform effort, will devastate our children’s future while undermining the will of the people.
The victory of State Question 780, a plan approved by almost 60 percent of voters, was a defining referendum on criminal justice reform. Oklahomans are no longer asking for reform, they are demanding it. But the passage of SQ 780 and SQ 781 was just the beginning.
Even with passage of the two state questions, Oklahoma’s prison population, already the second-highest in the nation, will grow another 25 percent in the next 10 years. The Department of Corrections needs $800 million to build two new prisons and $55 million each year to operate them. But, on our current course, Oklahoma will actually need three new prisons within 10 years.
The cost to warehouse non-violent inmates is outrageous, the data shows it does not improve public safety, and voters are not willing to pay for it anymore. We know this because the first section of SQ 780 states the voters’ intent to “…stop wasting taxpayer money by keeping people who commit low level offenses behind bars for years.”
Lawmakers face three options during this legislative session. They can allow SQ 780 and SQ 781 to stand but provide no substantive additional reforms to reverse our inevitable rendezvous with financial doom. They can destroy the progress of SQ 780 and SQ 781 by passing bills like HB 1482 and accelerate the inevitable bankruptcy that awaits our children. Or they can take this opportunity to reduce our prison population, along with the expense, by passing more evidence-based reforms while focusing on long-term justice reinvestment.
Working just like compound interest, which Albert Einstein called “the most powerful force in the universe,” we can reinvest our gains toward a long-term financial reward that both secures our own future and keeps us from shackling our children with the debt accrued by our bad choices.
Justice reinvestment takes the money we save from reducing our number of inmates and wisely using it to keep people out of prison in the first place. It’s a boost to public safety, which is the top priority of criminal justice, and has the potential to save Oklahomans billions of dollars.
Using empirically proven programs like veterans courts, drug courts, and mental health screening to redirect nonviolent offenders toward productive lives is the key. It’s a noble investment ensuring a rich inheritance for our children to live in a more stable and secure Oklahoma. Anything less and we greedily cheat them out of the opportunity to live in a better world than we did.
If lawmakers do not pass the additional criminal justice reforms we so urgently need, they must spend $800 million of our tax money to build those two new prisons this year, almost doubling our current budget deficit.
So these are the questions all citizens should ask their lawmakers directly if they fail to act: Whose taxes are you going raise? Whose budget are you going to cut?
It must be one or the other, or both, but it can not be neither. If lawmakers do not act, and act with urgency, they must raise your taxes, start slashing budgets, or both. Either way, our children will pick up the tab and be no safer for it.
We have a rapidly closing window of opportunity to spare ourselves and the next generation. Let’s make Oklahoma the latest conservative state to be right on crime.