A politically diverse group of Oklahoma state officials, policy advocates, and members of the business community came together this week to announce they were joining forces to stop a problem the state can no longer ignore: Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate, The Oklahoman reports. “We’re running a factory to create future felons,” said Bancfirst Corp. Chairman Gene Rainbolt. “It’s ridiculous.” He among a dozen other prominent Oklahomans who formed a coalition, known as Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, and they plan to take the issue straight to the voters through two ballot initiatives. “We need to correct corrections, and if we’re going to call it the Department of Corrections we need to do some correcting. If not now, when? We are at 119 percent capacity,” said Rep. Pam Peterson, alluding to the state’s swelling prison population.
More than 28,000 inmates, the state’s highest prison population ever, sit behind bars in Oklahoma. If successful, the coalition will place two ballot measures before voters, said former state House Speaker Kris Steele. The first would lower several nonviolent felonies that would warrant prison time, such as simple drug possession and writing fraudulent checks, to misdemeanors that would call for community-based treatment. The second initiative would task the Office of Management and Enterprise Services with tracking the number of offenders who would be diverted to treatment rather than prison and calculate the savings. Those funds would be held in a lock box, to be distributed to county governments for substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and offender supervision. To get both questions on a state ballot, the coalition will have to gather almost 68,000 signatures for each initiative.