Listen to this article here
Sign-Up for a free subscription to The Black Wall Street Times‘ daily newsletter, Black Editors’ Edition (BEE) – our curated news selections & opinions by us for you.
Published 11/13/2019 | Reading Time 6 min 4 sec
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform, a diverse and bipartisan coalition, filed a constitutional ballot initiative with the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office that would end the use of certain sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenses and allow people currently serving those sentences to petition the court for relief.
“Oklahoma is coming off of a momentous win for criminal justice reform with the recent historic commutation of more than 500 men and women thanks to the leadership of Gov. Stitt, the Legislature and hard work of previous past reforms,” said Executive Director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Kris Steele. “The progress we are seeing all started with the overwhelming support for reform Oklahomans demonstrated in 2016 with the passage of State Question 780. With this ballot initiative, Oklahoma voters have another opportunity to continue implementing best practices and take an additional step toward improving our criminal justice system.”
The state has the second highest imprisonment rate in the country and taxpayers spend nearly half a billion dollars on an overcrowded system that proves dangerous for both employees and incarcerated Oklahomans. One of the main reasons for Oklahoma’s continued incarceration crisis is its use of sentence enhancements and extreme prison sentences.
Compared to the national average, Oklahomans spend nearly 70% longer in prison for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes. This ballot initiative would end many of these sentence enhancements for a number of charges, ensuring people would not serve additional years in prison because of prior crimes for which they have already been held accountable.
“Now is the perfect time for Oklahoma to continue its push toward a system focused on mercy and redemption,” said Senior Pastor of Divine Wisdom Worship Center Rev. Theodis R. Manning, Sr. “Recent polling shows that two-thirds of Oklahoma voters support this ballot initiative, cutting across party lines — nearly 70% of both Republicans and Democrats said they would vote for the measure if it was on the ballot today. This state question is an important reform that will reduce our imprisonment rate and help keep Oklahoma out of the top spot for good.”
Women are generally the primary caregivers of children in the home, yet Oklahoma sends nearly twice as many women to prison, per capita, as the national average. In fact, Oklahoma has had one of the highest female imprisonment rates in the country for nearly three decades.
“Long prison sentences do not make us safer and sentence enhancements impose a huge cost on taxpayers and the economy without improving public safety,” said Women in Recovery graduate and criminal justice reform advocate Sonya Pyles. “Oklahoma’s continued incarceration crisis is tearing apart families and hurting our communities.”
Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform, a coalition made up of business and faith leaders, elected leaders, advocates and directly impacted people, will soon begin the process of collecting the required 177,958 signatures to put the measure to a statewide vote in 2020.
Statements of Support:
“Oklahoma has an incarceration crisis, driven in large part by its use of extreme sentences. Our state has some of the longest sentences in the country. We consistently send more of our citizens to prison at a rate unmatched in our country. We have made strides in criminal justice reform as a state, but this cannot and will not be the end of criminal justice reform. I trust the Oklahoma voters to continue to drive this reform forward for the good of our businesses and communities.”
Gene Rainbolt, Chairman Emeritus, BancFirst Corporation
“Oklahoma citizens serve far longer sentences for drug and property crimes compared to the national average. Under Gov. Stitt’s leadership, we have made some significant progress, but we cannot stop here. These long sentences weaken our families, our communities, and our workforce, and waste our tax dollars since they also do not make our neighborhoods safer. I trust our citizens to continue pushing criminal justice reform across our communities.”
Roy Williams, President & CEO, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber
“Oklahoma has recently taken a giant step toward a better and more just society. But this can’t be the end of the story. We send Oklahomans to prison for far too long, and it hurts our state, our communities and our businesses. Enacting smart reforms to our criminal justice system is critical to having a vibrant economy.”
Mike Neal, President & CEO, Tulsa Regional Chamber
“Oklahoma continues to send low-level drug offenders to prison for far too long — serving 79% longer sentences for drug offenses than the national average. This injustice harms our families, neighbors and communities. We must continue to make criminal justice reform a priority in our state. This ballot initiative will help reduce our incarceration rate and continue to build on key reforms that move this issue forward.”
Rev. Dr. Ray Owens, Pastor, Metropolitan Baptist Church
“Oklahoma hands down extremely long sentences for nonviolent offenses compared to the national average. Long prison sentences don’t just impact individuals serving time, but their entire family. People accused of crimes in Oklahoma can have years, decades or even life in prison stacked on top of their prison sentence if they have ever been convicted of a crime in the past. This ballot initiative is the next logical step in building on the reforms put into place so far. Our communities and families depend on it.”
Sue Ann Arnall, President, Arnall Family Foundation
“I am pleased with the work that Gov. Stitt has accomplished in reforming the state’s criminal justice system. However, Oklahoma has some of the longest sentences in the nation for nonviolent convictions exaggerated in part by punishment multipliers for those with previous convictions. As people have served their time, I’m reminded Jesus has said to forgive not once, not 7 times, but 70 times 7.”
Tom Ward, Chairman and CEO, Mach Energy
“Our state consistently condemns people to prison sentences unheard of throughout the rest of the country. This practice harms our communities, threatens our economy and fractures families. I vowed to fight for reforms in our criminal justice system and this ballot initiative is a step in the right direction. We must keep fighting for another day.”
Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, Founder, Terence Crutcher Foundation
“Gov. Stitt and the Legislature have worked hard to create momentum for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. For several years, legislators have tried to change laws to reduce excessive sentences and make prison terms more proportional. Despite support from state leaders and a majority of voters, most of these efforts have failed. Now Oklahoma voters are once again moving into the driver’s seat on sentencing reform to reduce incarceration in our state.”
Trent England, Executive Vice President and Director of Save Our States, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs
“Oklahoma is long overdue in reforming our criminal legal system. We send people to prison for far too long and incarcerate our citizens like no other state in the nation. I appreciate the efforts of our elected officials but believe it’s incumbent on Oklahoma’s citizens to enact important reforms.”
Dan Little, Attorney, Little Law Firm, PLLC
“Oklahoma has been one of the top states in its rate of female imprisonment for decades. Men and women in Oklahoma spend 79% longer for drug offenses and 70% longer for property offenses than the national average. Sentence enhancements are fueling Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. This ballot initiative will be a substantial step forward in reducing the number of extreme and unfair sentences in Oklahoma. A successful ballot initiative in 2020 will open the door in future years to continued reforms and additional opportunities to address Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis.”
Amy Santee, Sr. Program Officer, George Kaiser Family Foundation
“Oklahoma continues to send people to prison for far too long for drug and property crimes. These excessive sentences hurt Oklahoma’s communities, families, businesses and legal system. Gov. Stitt and other key community leaders have done some powerful work to create momentum around criminal justice reform. It’s now up to the voters to keep moving the issue forward.”
Marc Levin, Vice President of Criminal Justice Policy, Right on Crime
“In spite of several important reforms in recent years, Oklahoma continues to funnel people into the prison system, trapping them in the revolving door of mass incarceration. We have so much knowledge about best practices and an understanding that prison often worsens recidivism rates and harms Oklahoma families and communities. While we’ve seen progress over the years, there is still an urgent need to do more. We need reforms that not only stop our continued prison growth, but that reduce the number of people currently held in our overcrowded, crumbling prisons and jails; many of whom are suffering rather than receiving access to the care they need and deserve. We know that the direct voices of Oklahoma voters are the most powerful way to encourage elected officials to embrace the structural changes we so desperately need. This ballot initiative continues the momentum created by voters in 2016 and reflects meaningful change to the criminal legal system that Oklahomans want and one that will serve communities across our state for the better.”
Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director, ACLU of Oklahoma