Oklahoma’s prisons are overcrowded and will soon have both the highest female and male incarceration rate in the nation.
In 2016, voters went to the polls and passed two state questions that advocates hope to address the problem of putting people in prison for low-level drug possession and property crime charges.
Former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele is chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. He is also the executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry. Steele, a Republican, spoke to the Kiwanis Club of Bartlesville during its Wednesday afternoon meeting at the Bartlesville Community Center.
“Not only does Oklahoma have the highest female incarceration rate in the country, research and studies show that in January 2018 we will surpass Louisiana in having the highest male incarceration rate,” Steele said. “We have some very significant problems and this is something we should be talking about.”
State Question 780 lowered simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The measure continued the classification of drug manufacturing, trafficking, and selling as felony offenses.
Additionally, the law raised the threshold of felony grand larceny from $500 to $1,000. Property crimes under $1,000 are now considered misdemeanors.
State Question 781 creates a fund from the intended savings of sending a drug possession or low-level property crime offender to prison and reallocates those funds to counties to fund rehabilitation programs.
Both laws went into effect July 1.
Steele said studies show intervention programs rather than incarceration have a higher success rate of rehabilitation.
“Many times, property crimes occur as a result of someone trying to feed their drug addiction,” Steele said. “These two crimes often go hand-in-hand with each other. The intent of these laws are to get these offenders into programs to help them deal with their addiction.
“Passing these two state questions is the first step in getting a handle on the growing crisis of prison overcrowding and helping people find the treatment they need.”
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