There are too many people in Oklahoma prisons

J.C. Watts

We are living in interesting times to say the least. From our daily lives being upended by COVID-19 to the impact the pandemic has had on the initiative petition process this year, we’ve had to adapt in many ways to a new reality.

However, one pressing problem remains the same—we have too many people in Oklahoma prisons.

Our incarceration crisis is largely driven by the use of sentence penalties and extreme prison sentences, a practice that permits people accused of crimes to have years, decades or even life in prison stacked on top of their prison sentence if they have a previous conviction.

Compared to other states, people in Oklahoma spend nearly 70% longer in prison for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes.

Rather than receiving the treatment or services many need to overcome their situation, they’re spending time in prison. Oklahoma’s extreme prison sentences undermine the goals of redemption and rehabilitation and prevent people from reaching their God-given potential. Incarcerated people should have the opportunity to reset and become a community resource as opposed to being a drain on resources.

Yes, they’ve made mistakes and I fully acknowledge the victims who have been affected by crimes committed. However, we all are more than the bad things we have ever done and in spite of the bad choices we all still have value.

People should be afforded the opportunity to return as productive members of society. When we add decades or up to life to a sentence, we tell people we do not have faith in their potential —that we’re willing to throw them away.

Research shows long prison sentences do not make us safer and sentence penalties impose a huge cost on taxpayers and the economy without improving public safety.

The reforms State Question 805 proposes guide Oklahoma toward being smart on crime. So far, we have only been tough on crime and it’s not working.

The more we spend on mass incarceration, the less we have to spend on services and treatment. Our tax dollars are better spent on other priorities like education, economic development, transportation infrastructure, substance abuse treatment, mental health care and other public safety strategies that are more effective than long prison sentences. These investments and the reforms SQ 805 proposes make conservative fiscal sense and states like Texas, Georgia, Ohio and others have proven that being smart on crime works and also keeps citizens safe.

Now that SQ 805 will likely be on the ballot, we must continue important criminal justice reforms. We need to seek a new path forward grounded in opportunity, transformation of lives and savings. I encourage you to engage with this movement and vote “yes” on SQ 805.

— J.C. Watts is a minister and former congressman representing Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District. He served as chairman of the congressionally mandated Chuck Colson Task Force on Federal Incarceration Reform from January 2015 to January 2016. Signatures gathered in support of placing SQ 805 on the ballot are currently being reviewed by the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s Office.