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Criminal Justice Reform When Criminal Justice Reform Wasn't
With criminal justice finally finding bipartisan agreement in the Oklahoma Legislature, it important to remember where these ideas for “Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice System: Can We be Just as Tough but Twice as Smart?” began.

In 2008 a group of concerned citizens gathered for the Oklahoma Academy Town Hall in Ardmore. For three days the participants of the Town Hall examined Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, the process by which justice is maintained and administered. They asked is our system, in a word, “just”? Does Oklahoma’s system, which incarcerates women at the highest rate in the world, assign merited punishments? Do we impartially adjust the competing claims of education, healthcare, transportation, and so on, by locking up those whom we “are mad at”? Is the tendency to incarcerate versus treat the addicted or mentally ill the assignment of merited punishment? Is a system whereby a prison population can explode by 500 percent in just 30 years an impartial adjustment of conflicting claims?

And when they were done, the result was the cornerstone for our current criminal justice reform. While many of the recommendations from 2008 have been put into effect, many are still waiting for action from the Legislature. You can read the full Issues Brief with the recommendations for the 2008 Town Hall here. One of the primary recommendation was, “Drug Courts should be a front-end system. First-time non-violent offenders and non-violent offenders with one previous felony conviction should be given an alternative to incarceration (specialty courts: drug, veteran’s, mental health, etc.).” Just last week, State Impact’s Quinton Chandler wrote how lawmakers are now working this session to provide more funding for drug and mental health courts. Read Quinton’s article here on House Bill 1416

The idea of drug and mental health courts entered into the discussion at the 2008 Town Hall many times. The participants of the Town Hall recommended, “Due to disparity in population and resources between the state’s rural and urban areas, regional alternative programs should be implemented. Providing access to drug and mental health courts for every county using a regional approach could help alleviate the lack of drug and mental health providers. Another possibility would be to mandate these alternative programs through existing judicial districts. Oklahoma has been proactive in the creation of incarceration alternatives, particularly drug courts. One of the reasons that these alternatives are not more widely used is for fear that proponents will be tagged as ‘soft on crime’. This must stop.” 

As recently stated by Mike Turpen about the Oklahoma Academy, “The Academy was criminal justice reform when criminal justice reform wasn’t cool.” This reform was not immediate but with the work of the Academy membership and other organizations, we are now seeing positive reform. However, do not forget you are the driving force behind these improvements and it is with your involvement and participation that our criminal justice system is becoming more just, impartial and fair.
Lynn Thompson | Apr 5, 2019