Wayne Greene: Packing prisons makes us less safe and more poor

Some of the most important elements of this year’s efforts at criminal justice reform have survived the first deadline of the legislative session.

A 21-member task force appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin proposed 27 smart-on-crime reforms designed to reverse the state’s rising rate of incarceration. Oklahoma has fallen into an unaffordable habit of locking up people who we’re angry at, but who pose no significant threat to public safety.

The state has gone through two previous efforts at criminal justice reform, but if we don’t do more to change our habits the trend line is for more and more inmates and higher and higher costs.

One of the key proposals of the task force is to reconfigure the sentencing ranges for relatively small property crimes so that our limited prison space isn’t filled with relatively petty criminals. That idea survived in House Bill 2281.

Unfortunately, another important proposal, to realign drug crime sentences didn’t survive. That will be an important issue for lawmakers to consider next year. But 12 of 14 bills derived from the task force process survived their first test, which is a good start.

Congratulations to House Majority Whip Terry O’Donnell, R-Catoosa, Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat, R-Edmond, (both members of the task force) and Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, for their hard work on behalf of reform thus far.

The logic of the current system is obvious and wrong. The idea is if you threaten people with long prison sentences for minor crimes they won’t commit them and, if they do, they’ll be off the streets for a long time, so they can’t commit more crimes.

The logic of the proposed reform is more complex, but has the advantage of being right.

First, we should recognize that few people are set on the right path by going to prison. Prisons are places where amateur criminals become professional criminals. Prisons are opportunities for gangs and hardened criminals to recruit and teach. Those who resist that criminalization still face the stigma of a felony convictions, which is an effective block to future efforts to live and work by the rules of society. Our corrections system isn’t correcting very much.

Read the complete article at Tulsa World →

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Published May 8, 2020

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