Friday, March 18, 2011

Steele: Time To Get Smart About Incarceration

By House Speaker Kris Steele

Oklahoma’s prisons are at 99 percent capacity. This statistic strains our budget and jeopardizes public safety.

To ensure resources are available to lock dangerous criminals behind bars, a distinction should be made between low-risk, non-violent offenders and those who pose a threat to society.

Oklahoma currently incarcerates female offenders at twice the national average and our male incarceration rate is the third highest in the nation. Approximately 60 percent of current inmates are considered low-risk offenders.

It is time to consider utilizing more cost-effective, evidence-based alternative sanctions for these individuals.

Last year, a law was implemented to reduce the number of non-violent female offenders who are placed behind bars. A pilot program was established to provide strict supervision, one-on-one counseling and group and family sessions to offer treatment for substance abuse addiction, educational opportunities and life skills. Rehabilitation, job training, and behavioral skills are affordable tools that can transform offenders from tax burdens to taxpayers. Thus far, 90 percent of the participants in the pilot program have not re-entered the system and are now contributing members of society.

House Bill 2131 proposes to build on this foundation by focusing on saving taxpayer dollars and increasing public safety. Reforms in the legislation include changing the default sentencing structure from consecutive to concurrent terms, enhancing eligibility for community sentencing and GPS monitoring programs for low-risk offenders and streamlining the pardon and parole process for non-violent offenders.

The purpose of HB 2131 is to drive down crime, produce better outcomes and increase efficiencies with limited state resources. Neighboring states are already reaping the rewards of a system that capitalizes on alternative sanctions for low-risk offenders.

Texas began implementing significant reforms in 2005 and is experiencing successful results. In the last five years, Texas has saved more than $2 billion on inmate housing and prison construction and reduced crime by 10 percent. Currently, their crime rate sits at its lowest point since 1973.

Tough and smart reforms are necessary to curtail the growth of government. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese, former Director of National Drug Control Policy Bill Bennett, and more than 20 other conservative leaders established a public awareness campaign known as “Right on Crime” to highlight the rewards of a truly conservative criminal justice system.

This week, Right on Crime joined forces with Oklahoma to expedite the positive work already begun in our state. As policy makers, we can be both tough and smart on crime.

Oklahoma must focus on solutions that break the cycle of criminal activity and increase public safety. Treatment, education and prevention provide more cost-efficient opportunities that lead to productive, successful results.

HB 2131 promotes practical reforms that promote public safety, exercise fiscal responsibility and improve the future for generations to come.

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