TULSA, Okla. – Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform officially kicked off its effort to collect more than 65,000 petition signatures needed to qualify its two state questions for the November ballot. State questions 780 and 781 – which would reduce the prison population, redirect savings toward addressing the root causes of crime, and help low-level offenders turn their lives around – have generated significant support since their announcement last month. Former House Speaker Kris Steele, the Chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, joined alongside some of Oklahoma’s most respected leaders in January to announce the ballot measures, which have generated significant support among some of the state’s most prominent faith leaders, business leaders, policy experts, community leaders and advocates, and treatment and rehabilitation providers, among others.
“We’re excited to kick off this next phase of the campaign, taking the issue directly to the voters of Oklahoma so they can weigh in on whether it’s time to take a smarter approach to public safety,” said Kris Steele, Chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “Since we announced the ballot measures last month, we have generated tremendous support from all across the state. It’s clear that Oklahomans are ready to reduce spending on prison expansion and redirect taxpayer resources to effective treatment and rehabilitation programs that will provide the necessary help needed to turn people’s lives around, to get them back on track, and to become contributing members of our communities.”
Today, at two separate campaign rally events in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Steele and the coalition brought together volunteers and supporters from across the state to officially kick off the signature collection effort, highlighting the importance of the initiatives before deploying campaign volunteers into communities to begin taking the message directly to the voters.
“In my years in public service I have rarely seen an issue that unites more Oklahomans from across the political spectrum than the issue of reforming our state’s criminal justice system,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Brady Henry. “With Oklahoma facing a budget shortfall, and with the cost of incarceration continuing to grow, it’s clear that the time to take a smarter approach toward investing taxpayer resources is now. This effort will not only save taxpayer dollars, it will invest them in addressing the root causes of crime, increasing public safety and keep our communities safe.”
“Once an individual is strapped with a conviction, it creates hurdles for them, especially around employment,” said Mike Neal, President and CEO of the Tulsa Regional Chamber. “This initiative recognizes the importance of job training and employment programs by providing a vehicle to fund these important programs in the future. This initiative will help people turn their lives around, become productive members of their communities, and strengthen Oklahoma’s economic engine by growing our workforce and ensuring our businesses have access to the unique talents of all Oklahomans.”
“Oklahoma’s faith community has a strong legacy of leading on important issues that impact our neighbors, families, friends and communities,” said Rev. Ray Owens, Pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Tulsa. “Helping to make sure that every Oklahoman has a shot at redemption, a chance to turn their lives around, and reunite with their families, is one of the most important efforts Oklahoma’s faith community can lead on. We are proud to support this effort which reflects the values and priorities of Oklahoma’s faithful, and are ready to put words into action by helping to generate the support needed for success in November.”
Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country and the highest incarceration rate for women, which costs taxpayers nearly $500 million annually and drains significant resources away from investments that can do more to enhance public safety. As the state’s prison population continues growing – increasing by 12 percent between 2009 and 2014 – so does its price tag, which has increased by 172 percent in the past two decades.
The Ballot Measures
Through two ballot measures – Questions 780 and 781 – the coalition is working to pursue sentencing reforms for certain low-level offenses, which trigger cost savings to be invested in evidence-based programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions and provide access to education and job training, which are more effective approaches to reducing crime and keeping communities safe.
Question 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. By reclassifying these offenses, Oklahoma is able to trigger cost savings from decreased corrections spending. Secondly, Question 781 would then invest those cost savings into addressing the root causes of crime through rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior and go untreated in prison, and education and job training programs to help low-level offenders turn their lives around, find employment, and avoid going back to prison.
“Having grown up as a child in an environment riddled with substance abuse and drug addiction, I quickly turned to alcohol and drugs in my youth, modeling the behaviors I had witnessed since birth,” said Amanda Spicer, a graduate from Women in Recovery. “After I was released from prison, I found myself free from incarceration, but not free from addiction, and so I continued my run-ins with the justice system, until I eventually got the help I needed to get sober. I turned my life around and am now the proud mother of a beautiful girl, and I’m supporting this initiative because I know that the smartest way to reduce our prison population and make our communities safer is to treat people with health conditions like drug abuse, so they can return to living productive lives in their communities.”
“Receiving rehabilitative treatment, for me, completely changed my life and empowered me so that I could give back to my community,” said Meagan Gaddis, the Continuing Care Coordinator for ReMerge. “I feel the opportunities that I received should be more widely available to others because it would open up vast amounts of potential in countless communities across the state. Being able to look at addiction through the lens of people in need of treatment rather than people that need to be punished would greatly benefit individuals and their families. Rehabilitation programs have allowed me to grow into a better mother for my children and allowed me to pursue my career goals, including pursuing my bachelor’s degree. But, most importantly, it has allowed me to obtain a life of recovery and give back to others who are in need.”
Supporters of the ballot measures span the political spectrum and represent the diverse views and concerns of Oklahomans everywhere. Some of the coalition’s many partners and members include Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Right on Crime of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Policy Institute, George Kaiser Family Foundation, ACLU of Oklahoma, Inasmuch Foundation, Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, ReMerge, TEEM, The Oklahoma Academy, Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, Women in Recovery, and the YWCA of Tulsa. Some of the prominent leaders supporting the effort, and who spoke today at the two campaign rallies, include Tom Ward, CEO, Tapstone Energy; Estela Hernandez, Vice President of Engagement, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs; Rev. Theodis Manning, Senior Pastor of Divine Wisdom Worship Center; Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director, ACLU of Oklahoma; Stephanie Horten, Director, Women’s Defense Team, and; Adam Luck, Oklahoma State Director, Right on Crime.
More information about the initiative, and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, can be found on its website at www.OKJusticeReform.org. Updates on the coalition’s efforts can also be seen on Twitter at @OKJusticeReform and on Facebook at /OKJusticeReform.
Pictured L to R
- Amy Santee, Senior Program Officer at GKFF
- Amanda Spicer, WIR Graduate
- Adam Luck, Oklahoma Director of Right on Crime
- Kris Steele, Chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform
- Mike Neal, President of Tulsa Regional Chamber
- Stephanie Horten, Director of the Women’s Defense Team
- Ray Owens, Senior Pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Tulsa
Contact: Will Hodges