The current budget crisis in Oklahoma calls for education. This is quite the irony since education funding saw its share of cuts. But, the sort of education needed does not require sitting in a classroom in a local public school.
Last night I attended a Town Hall Meeting sponsored by OKJustcieReform.org.
Citizens already committed to supporting State Questions 780 and 781 filled the Oklahoma City University Law School Auditorium. No one raised their hand in the room when asked if anyone opposed the two questions aiming to bring justice reform to Oklahoma.
The Discriminated Against
“Quit stopping people for being poor,” George Young Sr. described one of his early aims upon entering the State Legislature. He was told his goal would require a revolutionary change in thinking. He was met with something like, “Nice try.” State Questions 780 and 781 provide an opportunity for Oklahoma to begin a revolutionary change in thinking.
One recurring theme among presenters should come as no surprise: the system of justice puts greater pressure on the poor than any other socioeconomic group of people. Poverty knows no ethnic or gender boundaries. But, these may be compounding factors.
The statistics offered by Dr. Susan Sharp pointed up one of the more embarrassing features of the Oklahoma Justice System. Women in Oklahoma are incarcerated at more than two times the National average. (65:100,000 vs. 142:100,000) The fact is made more alarming since Oklahoma per capita does not have more women in the State than the National average. Sharp described the sociological impact of the high rate of incarceration. For instance, 70% of all children whose mother is incarcerated will themselves end up in prison.
Most of these women are non-violent offenders. Oklahoma crime statistics indicate non-violent crime has remained at a constant level while violent crime has increased.
Treatment for addiction and/or mental illness would be far a far better option for non-violent offenders regardless of race or gender. Estimates are that it costs $15,000 per year to incarcerate an individual in Oklahoma. Compare that to about $6000 per individual for treatment and community supervision. Factor in that Oklahoma prisons are at 122% of capacity with the workforce in those facilities at about 60%. Both those in our prisons and those working in our prisons face the debilitating effects of the system itself.
Oklahoma has the number 1 per capita incarceration rate for women in the Country and the number 2 per capita incarceration rate among men.
Black males are three times more likely to be incarcerated for marijuana possession in Oklahoma than white males. Marijuana use among black males and white males is virtually the same.
I walked to the elevator after the event and thought about these disparities particularly among women and black males. It is telling that the two groups of people historically discriminated against in this Country represent a large number of those incarcerated in Oklahoma.
Kevin Steele rightly described that what is needed is a fundamental shift in thinking about how Oklahoma, and the Country, address non-violent offenders.
Not a Throwaway
Haylie Webb proved to be the compelling argument. She shared her story. Poor. An incarcerated mother. Drug abuser. Haylie herself became an addict. Facing the likelihood of her own imprisonment, a potential ten years sentence, she was accepted into ReMerge. Now sober for three years, with an earned degree and a job, Haylie provides an illustration where treatment and community support saves more than money.
I could not help but be taken in by the description of her own realization once she found a means of treatment. “I learned I am not a throwaway.” The descriptions of prison conditions in Oklahoma due to overcrowding mean funding for rehabilitative measures go unfunded. Common areas to socialize become places for cots. Visiting areas also become storehouse locations rather than the looked-forward-to moments with family and friends, one key hope filled experience for those on the “inside.”
Speakers emphasized the need to work toward means to help those who become trapped in the cycle of poverty rather than create an economic black hole the is nothing more than a bin in which to throwaway others because we just do not care. How many of you have excelled with a second chance? When someone invested in you what you were lacking?
Terrible Rate of Return
Ideally the system aims to help offenders become productive members of society. Yet one-third of those incarcerated are there for a probation violation. Sharp pointed out from her research that many of these cases are a matter of economics. Low paying jobs for ex-offenders, the cost of living, the accompanying required fees and self-supporting treatments and missed parole appointments make-up the list of causes rather than re-offending.
Underneath the presentations lay references to the prison-industrial-complex represented in for-profit prisons. More than one speaker pointed to underfunded D.A. Offices where the lack of State funding is made up in a system that self-generates revenue. In order to do so requires particular handling of non-violent offenders. This is not a peculiarly Oklahoma issue. One need only read the recent report out of Baltimore. Or, consider the stories out of Ferguson or even St. Louis. These practices are endemic to the system.
H.E. Gene Rainbolt was among the speakers that pointed to the horrible rate of return. It does like this. If the system is designed to help offenders with rehabilitative processes it is failing. The cost to maintain our system in Oklahoma is currently $500 million. If we staffed at 100% then the figure would be more near $750 million. When there are too few instances of good stories coming from the system, then the rate of return is awful.
Add in the reality that funding this system is a statuary requirement it does not take a genius to look at how other programs are cut in order to fund the system. Education. Mental Health Treatment. Senior Care.
After the event was over I stopped to greet Representative Young. It had been a while since we last saw one another, though we had talked on the phone earlier in the day. (I will have a future podcast episode where I interviewed George on the subject of race in Oklahoma. I am sure we will broach this subject too.) A gentleman approached to suggest the Church had failed and now wanted the State to do its job.
George responded with grace. He made a good point when he replied, “We have failed some. We have not failed all.” During the Question and Response time Representative Young spoke out of his 30 year experience as a pastor, most recently in northeast Oklahoma City. He talked of the ways he had become involved in Drug Court and volunteered to help counsel offenders. George described the ways Holy Temple Baptist Church built a Senior Living Center on its campus and provided back-to-school backpacks for children. He shared the story of one fellow he counseled and how his story turned out. Yes, there may be some the Church misses, fails. But there are others who have not been failed.
For a brief moment I wanted to defend George to the gentleman. I wanted to say, “Were we in the same room not 15 minutes ago?” After that initial impulse to defend a friend I had to agree with the gentleman. For too long the Church has failed to see the ways we might better engage with those who are poor, women, and in the minority. We have opted to spend time and energy on ourselves. Maybe we need to convince ourselves of what we believe. I suspect that if we spend as much time practicing what we believe our doubts would be fewer and farther between.
We spend an inordinate amount of time wanting the preacher to warn of Hell and not much time helping people out of their living Hells. We want to talk about an Incarnate Savior but little time incarnating that Savior in our own lives. We want to exhort people to stop behaviors that end in trouble but little time exhorting one another to love and good deeds. We want to rebuke those in sins we consider detestable but little time remembering that in one of those same lists the Apostle Paul included the unloving and unmerciful.
The Church has failed some. The Church has a not failed all.
Voting “Yes” on State Question 780 and 781 is a step in the right direction. It is the response to the recognition that our State has failed some. And our State has a not failed all. In other words, a “Yes” vote is an agreement that we could all start thinking about these matters in revolutionary ways because the current return on our malaise is to foster ongoing human disasters.
Vote “Yes” in November.