There is an old adage in broadcast news: “If it bleeds, it leads.” With nightly stories about crime in places like Chicago and St. Louis, one would expect voters to be clamoring for longer sentences and more incarceration, not to mention repealing past justice reforms. But Oklahomans haven’t taken the bait, according to new polling data.
New survey research shows broad support for criminal justice reform in the Sooner State. Nearly three-quarters of Oklahomans (73%) believe it’s important to reduce the jail or prison population in the state. And the voters are willing to back their beliefs up with political action. Voters are also more likely to support a candidate who wants to reform the criminal justice system by a margin of 5:1.
Oklahoma has led the way nationally with improvements to the criminal justice system that strengthen community safety while carefully lowering incarceration rates, particularly for those who are not considered public safety threats. Reducing Oklahoma’s prison population will allow the state to use savings for programs that cut recidivism, which is a significant driver of crime. Data shows Oklahoma has seen a reduction in violent crime, and the recidivism rate is now the lowest in the nation. Oklahomans from Gov. Kevin Stitt on down know a good thing when they see it, and the polling shows voters agree.
Common-sense improvements have reduced the state’s prison population, increased community safety and saved taxpayer dollars. However, voters recognize more needs to be done — with four times as many Oklahomans saying the state needs to continue safely reducing the prison population than those who say reforms have gone too far.
The Oklahoma State Department of Corrections spends, on average, $26,616 per year per prisoner and has a ballooning budget of more than half a billion dollars. Recent legislative changes have helped cut the prison population and simultaneously seen the crime rate go down.
The poll results show that 35% of Oklahoma voters support additional funding for addiction treatment and 32% for education, while only 3% want more spending on new jails and prisons.
Despite continuing efforts to repeal parts of State Questions 780 and 781, which reduced incarceration, the polling found voters haven't backed away from prior reforms. But that’s not all. There is overwhelming support for even more commonsense legislation.
80% of Oklahoma voters support a new felony reclassification system with consistent sentencing ranges based on the severity of the crime and shorter prison sentences for some offenses (including 74% of Republican voters and 68% of voters who identify as “very conservative”).
70% support changes in law so people aren’t returned to prison for minor violations of probation if they haven’t committed any new crimes (with 64% of Republican voters support).
64% support ending the practice of keeping people who have been charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony in jail before trial (including 61% of self-described “very conservative” voters).
The polling shows what we already know: Taxpayers hate wasting money. They want a system that holds people accountable, protects survivors and supports rehabilitation. And they don’t want to spend money to incarcerate those who don’t pose a threat to public safety. The message from Oklahoma voters is clear — they support fixing the criminal justice system.
David Safavian is the general counsel of Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) as well as the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation's Nolan Center for Justice, which works on policies that improve public safety, ensure accountability, and foster human dignity. Follow him on Twitter @DSafavianEsq
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Message from Oklahoma voters: We support criminal justice reform