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Op-Ed By Deon Osborne
The recent decision by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to deny death row inmate Julius Jones a hearing, based on new evidence, highlights the incredible injustices taking place in our state.
A federal defense attorney for Jones, who was accused of the murder of Edmond businessman in 1999 when Jones was a 19 year old college student at the University of Oklahoma, claims he has new evidence that could free his client.
Defense attorney Dale Biach has argued on behalf of Julius Jones at the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals and at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case is also being heard, claiming that the state never tested a red bandana that may contain DNA evidence of Jones’ innocence, and new testimony points to racial bias in the 1999 jury.
A former juror has claimed that a fellow juror in the 1999 trial openly stated to others nearby that they “should take that n-word out and shoot him behind the jail,” according to the City-Sentinel.
Jones’ counsel, which is comprised of federal public defender Dale Baich, Norman, Oklahoma attorney Mark Barnett, and a pro bono attorney from New York, also claimed that a recent report highlighting racial disparities in the Oklahoma criminal justice system should be taken into consideration.
Among the findings from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology’s Fall 2017 report, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission highlighted that homicide cases involving white victims are more likely to receive the death penalty than cases involving non-white victims. Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater is among the state’s counsel.
An ABC documentary-series, The Last Defense, recently highlighted Jones’ case, painting a picture of unmistakable mishandlings by the state twenty years ago and in the midst of new findings since then.
Oklahoma is at a dangerous crossroads. We know that we’ve incarcerated more of our state population than any other population on Earth.
We know that our prisons are dangerously overcrowded, underfunded, and we have contracts mandating occupancy levels within private prisons.
We know that we have the most female and black prisoners per capita filling our jails and wasting taxpayer dollars than any other state in the union.
We know that Oklahoma has one of the highest rates for officer-involved shootings of citizens, and we know we have prisoners confined in our jails simply for having a little marijuana on them, while other Oklahomans, mostly white and male, are starting medical marijuana businesses.
Most of all, we know that our disparities in education across districts and within schools lead to more prisoners.
Teachers are often the gatekeepers for determining a child’s future. Where are they in the fight for criminal justice reform?
This spring we learned that even in one of the most conservative, right-to-work states in the U.S., the power of unionized, working people, women, students, and advocates can overpower the stubborn negligence of the state legislature, resulting in new education funding and a teacher pay raise after the first tax increase in two decades.
But even as we’ve made gains in criminal justice, such as legalizing medical cannabis, decriminalizing simple possession and changing certain felonies to misdemeanors, our prison system is still growing at an increasing rate.
We can’t afford incremental, moderate change any longer. Our future peace and prosperity depend on the present action of those best in position to change minds and open hearts.
Teachers, you have the political will to build on recent school funding successes toward a demand for sustained results, and you’re building the political power with scores of new education candidates running for state and local offices who can actually transform proposals into policy.
You might be the last line of defense for your students. Whether you aggressively push for radical reforms or allow the rambling rhetoric of politicians to pacify progress will most likely be tested in 2019, as the new legislature convenes in February.
We need you to listen to the stories of your students, the demands from activists, and the research of journalists and policy analysts, like those at Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Out of the dozen initiatives to pursue in criminal justice reform, none seem in more immediate need of attention than pressing the next governor to sign an executive order to retroactively release all prisoners from jails and prisons who are confined for simple possession of marijuana and to reform the pardon and parole board.
But we also we need to follow the lead of organizations like Norman Citizens 4 Racial Justice which has worked with local police and city councilors to form a Citizens Advisory Board, and we need to demand the state fully fund police, sheriff and District Attorneys offices so that fines and fees will never be used as a tool for increasing revenue.
We need to support Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform in their efforts to reduce the prison population and organizations like the Terrence Crutcher Foundation to push for a change in state laws.
Teachers, you’re no longer a stranger to writing letters to your local newspapers, forming coalitions with like-minded groups or holding meetings with civic and business groups.
You’re no stranger to contacting your legislators to demand action and raising the stakes if you’re being ignored.
You’re no stranger to protests, walkouts or face-to-face meetings with people in power and interviews with the media. Don’t be a stranger to radical reforms and restorative justice.
Rectifying the States’ past mistakes, protecting our present liberties and preserving your students’ futures depend on your support. Will you join us?
Deon Osborne is a contributing writer for the Black Wall Street Times and was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has written for OU’s student newspaper the OU Daily as well as OKC-based Red Dirt Report. Deon received the Governor’s Commendation in 2017 for his videography highlighting a statewide distracted driving prevention program and runs a freelance video marketing service at indepthwithdeonfilms.com. He now lives in Tulsa, where he works as a policy intern at the Oklahoma Policy Institute.