GUEST COLUMN: Addressing the root causes of over-incarceration

Julie Knutson

Last year, Gov. Kevin Stitt set records for approving the largest single-day commutations in U.S. history to address our state’s ever-growing incarceration crisis. But we still have a long way to go to fix the root causes of our incarceration crisis. This November, Oklahomans can help create real, meaningful reform for our criminal justice system by voting “yes” for State Question 805.

Oklahoma Academy was one of the first Oklahoma-based organizations to set criminal justice reform as a top priority on its agenda.

We’ve come a long way since then, and I can tell you firsthand what meaningful reform looks like.

State Question 805 is, without a doubt, the best next step we can take to continue our progress toward a better criminal justice system.

Right now, Oklahoma sentences people 70% longer for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes than other states, driven in part by the use of repeat sentence penalties. These repeat sentence penalties are used to add years, decades or even life in prison to a person’s sentence if they have been convicted of a nonviolent crime in the past.

Unfortunately, the use of these penalties is very common. Prosecutors wield excessive sentences against Oklahomans in four out of every five cases. Not only does this punish a person twice for a past conviction, repeat sentence penalties cost taxpayers millions of dollars, hurt communities and families, and long sentences do not make our state safer.

State Question 805 will limit the use of harsh, disproportionate sentences for nonviolent offenses and allow people who have already received an unnecessarily long sentence because of their past to petition the court for relief. This would safely reduce Oklahoma’s prison population by 8.5% and save Oklahoma taxpayers almost $200 million over the next 10 years.

Repeat sentence penalties do not make our communities safer and they do not address the root causes of crime. The best and proven way to do that is not to focus on long punishments, but instead allocate those dollars to support services and partner agencies that assist with housing, employment, mental health or substance abuse treatment to help people who were formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society and workplaces.

Oklahomans deserve better from our criminal justice system. It would be unfortunate if Gov. Stitt’s commutation record was broken in the coming years because no real, comprehensive reform was made to stop the harsh and excessive sentences for nonviolent offenses that have led to our state’s incarceration crisis.

Join me and let’s make real criminal justice reform happen that better serves Oklahoma communities and families. Vote “yes” on SQ 805 on Nov. 3.

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Knutson is president and CEO of The Oklahoma Academy, a private nonprofit statewide membership organization addressing the major public policy issues facing the state. An opposing view was published in Sunday’s News & Eagle.

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