OKLAHOMA CITY- The RESTORE Task Force was created with a foundational belief in the need for urgent, bold ideas to tackle the carceral crisis in Oklahoma. The governor's executive order suggested the individuals appointed find solutions for those directly impacted by crime, by the criminal legal system, and by an outdated tough-on-crime mentality that continues to create criminal charges and sentences without regard for best practices, public safety, or long-term impact. However, beyond the foundational notes, the report released by the task force yesterday lacks any actual steps or visions for moving forward in the urgent manner our incarceration crisis calls for.
In a state that has long been an outlier for our rate of incarceration of women, Black people, and sees an increasing rate of incarceration of indigenous folks, not once does this report address these disparities. The time for suggesting more task forces, and more studies has passed. Time and time again Oklahomans have been promised this will be the session for meaningful criminal justice reform, and 2020 must be that year.
“This report, while created by folks whose intentions are good, starts with the idea we should be focusing on punishment, and how we change our punishment, rather than how we address the social issues we’ve criminalized over decades of tough on crime policy,” said Nicole McAfee, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the ACLU of Oklahoma. “From start to finish, our criminal legal system disproportionately harms Black people, indigenous people, people who are undocumented, LGBTQ+ people, women, people with disabilities, and people in poverty. What we have now is a system that from your first interaction with police holds you for ransom in the clutches of a predatory lending based bail model and tries to leverage you into a plea rather than granting you a day in court, one that falls short of our Constitutional standards, and needs bold policy fixes in place urgently. The people being harmed by our years of studies and inaction cannot wait.”
RESTORE included in the report an ask for another year to continue its work. RESTORE members met over 37 times since created by Governor Stitt. While we should always look to data and best practices, we do not need another round of meetings and reports, but action based on the cumulation of decades of data by local and national experts in the field of criminal legal reform. Oklahoma now teeters between the title of first or second highest per-capita-incarceration rate in the nation. And it seems in its recommendations RESTORE is looking to the state that most closely mirrors us in that dubious distinction, Louisiana, for inspiration, citing the need for a Bible college modeled after Angola prison as the cultural standard we should strive for, rather than looking to any of the 48 other states that don’t lead the world in rate of incarceration as models.
The ACLU of Oklahoma joins criminal justice reform-focused organizations, thought partners, and people directly impacted by incarceration, from across the aisle and across Oklahoma, in urging the legislature this session to take action on legislation that has the power to critically relieve the suffering endured by too many at the hands of a broken criminal legal system.
In moving forward with meaningful reform, priorities that should be considered this session include:
- Expanding access to alternatives to incarceration, outside of punishment-reliant models, and decriminalizing people who use drugs or suffer from substance use disorders.
- Bringing our pre-trial system in line with the constitution to make sure that the process is time-bound, includes zealous defense from your first day in court, considers the ability to pay in the limited situations when money bail is set, and presumes release with as few conditions as possible.
- Shifting the burden of funding the criminal justice system away from those who can least afford it by changing our fines and fees structure.
- Funding public defenders and indigent defense, the court system, and district attorneys offices from the general revenue fund.
- Reducing sentence lengths, and shifting away from bad-practices like mandatory minimum sentences and sentence enhancements.
- Empowering juries by giving people a full range of sentencing options, including alternatives to incarceration, and a chance to hear aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
- Centering the role of primary caretakers when setting conditions of release and during sentencing.
- Repealing failure to protect laws and similar practices which punish survivors of domestic violence for their inability to escape the perpetrators of abuse.
When we take action on meaningful criminal legal reform, we not only see a shift towards justice and public safety and restoration of communities, we also see significant financial savings that can be diverted to address the root causes of so much of what we have criminalized. This is just a short list in the numerous options available to Oklahoma legislators this session when considering meaningful reform.
The ACLU of Oklahoma hopes that the lack of legislative options included in the RESTORE report does not hinder the legislature when considering their responsibility to the tens of thousands of Oklahoma constituents who know the unintended consequences of our punitive criminal justice system. Oklahomans have been and remain ready for real reform. Let’s not make them wait through another election cycle to see if the people in power will respond to their demand for justice.