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Bold changes needed on justice reform

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Gov. Kevin Stitt
Gov. Kevin Stitt

Criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, which seemingly has been studied to death in the past several years, is going to get yet another look, this time by a task force created by Gov. Kevin Stitt. This is a wheel that never stops spinning.

It was 12 years ago, in 2007, that the Legislature spent about $800,000 on a performance audit of the Department of Corrections. The report offered several recommendations designed to curb the growth of the inmate population; most of those were dismissed by lawmakers.

In 2012, the Legislature passed a major reform package that was bolstered by data compiled by the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center. Most of those reforms went by the wayside after the bill’s chief advocate termed out of the Legislature.

Lawmakers have approved several bills in the past few years that do such things as give judges more leeway in sentencing for some crimes and end mandatory-minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug-related and burglary offenses.

Most recently, a bipartisan group called Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform has proposed evidence-based policy changes that it says would not just slow prison growth but drive the census down over the next decade. Those bills got sidelined this session.

Now Stitt has announced the formation of a task force called “RESTORE,” which stands for re-entry, supervision, treatment and opportunity reform, the topics to be studied.

“This task force will bring together all stakeholders to discuss the criminal code, diversion programs, victims’ rights and our prison system,” Stitt says.

The governor wants recommendations that first off protect lives and property and respect and support victims of crime. He says he also wants recommendations that deter criminal activity, enhance and establish diversion programs, reduce recidivism and lower Oklahoma’s incarceration rate.

These are worthwhile goals and badly needed. Oklahoma holds the dubious distinction of locking up more people, per capita, than any other state, and our prisons — most of them older and in poor physical shape — are consistently filled well beyond capacity. It’s a near miracle that Oklahoma hasn’t experienced a major riot due to prison conditions and a shortage of correctional officers.

Stitt also has assigned all the major players to have a say. These include representatives for district attorneys, the courts, the attorney general’s office, the DOC, the state’s mental health agency, the Department of Human Services, a victims’ advocate and someone versed in successful diversion programs.

The 15-person panel has been charged with submitting by Dec. 6 its recommendations for consideration during next year’s legislative session.

Oklahomans working together “can create bold change that will offer our fellow citizens a second chance while also keeping our communities and streets safe," Stitt says. Bold change must result. Otherwise this exercise, like so many others, will be little more than additional window dressing. Oklahoma needs more than that.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›

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