Oklahoma is like many states that are at a place to seriously re-think their approach to criminal justice.
With the highest incarceration rate for women in the country, Oklahoma’s prison system continues to grow, locking away thousands of individuals who are coping with the consequences of past mistakes and yearning for a shot at redemption. Many of these individuals are in need of rehabilitation and treatment for drug addiction and mental health conditions, yet because of financial constraints and failed policies they sit in cellblocks, untreated and often forgotten.
Many think it is time to reform Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. There is a need for the transformation of our system from one rooted in prisons and punishment to one that believes in a higher purpose. For low level offenders who battle addiction and/or mental illness, treatment is more effective than incarceration. Fortunately, an effort is underway to make this transformation a reality.
A coalition comprised of faith leaders, business leaders, law enforcement, policy experts and health professionals from across the state have joined forces to pursue a smarter approach toward public safety. The coalition is aptly named Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR).
You might be thinking, “With all the people who need help in our State, why care about criminals?” Consider two words: Creation and Redemption. People are created in the image of God. People have worth, not because they are innocent, but because they are God’s children. The Biblical truth of the Sanctity of Life applies to all people. We believe that Jesus changes people. Broken sinners— including each of us-- can be reclaimed.
Take, for example, the restorative encounter of the man from the region of the Gerasenes who because of mental illness lived in the tombs and demonstrated anti-social behavior, the woman at the well who because of instability and dysfunction was forced to engage in basic, community activities alone and in isolation. The woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears because of the gratitude she experienced at the chance of a new life (I wonder if addiction played a role in her previous struggles), or the myriad of opportunities afforded Simon Peter in his journey to reach his God-given potential.
Christ, our Redeemer and Sustainer, inspires us to extend forgiveness, assistance, second-chances and restoration to those in need. We can extend our gratitude for grace and shine the light of our core convictions by embracing this issue of Criminal Justice Reform.
Many low-level offenders currently are imprisoned in a system inadequate to treat addiction or mental health issues, and after incarceration are left struggling to access housing, employment, and education. In the end, families are devastated, communities suffer, and adults reentering society often return to a life of crime.
We need a justice system that enhances public safety and reduces crime by addressing root issues like addiction and mental illness but just as important, Oklahomans deserve a justice system that fosters strong families and improves quality of life. Children shouldn’t be torn from their mothers and fathers, and families shouldn’t slowly deteriorate because our justice system is without a redemptive focus.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.
Kris Steele is the Executive Director of TEEM (The Education and Employment Ministry) in Oklahoma City and Chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
To learn more about Oklahoma State Questions 780 and 781 or to participate in OCJR please visit www.OKJusticeReform.org.
The author’s comments about State Question 780 and 781 that will be on the Oklahoma ballot in November 2016:
To usher in an era of justice rooted in restoration and redemption, OCJR is promoting two state questions that will appear on the ballot this November. State Question 780 reclassifies certain low-level offenses — like drug possession and low-level property offenses — as misdemeanors instead of felonies, which triggers savings from decreased incarceration costs. State Question 781 then returns those savings to local communities to support rehabilitation programs that treat mental health conditions and drug addiction, which are often root causes of criminal behavior. It also provides an opportunity to invest in education and job training to help low-level offenders turn their lives around, find employment, and avoid a habitual life of crime.
State Questions 780 and 781 are designed to make communities safer and strengthen families by giving low-level offenders an opportunity to become healthy, reunite with their children and spouses, and return to their communities to live with meaning and purpose.