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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Since the days of frontier justice, lawmakers in conservative Oklahoma have viewed harsh prison sentences as the politically expedient solution to crime, including nonviolent offenses.
That approach has imposed a high price, leaving the state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, overcrowded prisons and skyrocketing costs. Now, after years of steady debate, there’s growing agreement — even among conservatives — that changes are needed.
But the fragile consensus has crashed headlong into a towering obstacle: the entrenched ideology of the state’s top prosecutors, many of whom have made political careers out of padding their conviction rates.
The powerful elected district attorneys are lagging “behind the will of the people,” said state Rep. Cory Williams, a five-term Democrat who is running to be one of the state’s 27 district attorneys. “I think the public thinks we can do things differently, and I think our current DAs do not.”
The current Republican governor, Mary Fallin, backs the push to steer more nonviolent offenders into alternatives to prison. And in 2016, a ballot measure to reduce penalties for drug possession and property crimes passed with nearly 60 percent support, even though district attorneys and law enforcement were fiercely opposed.
Those changes and others the Legislature approved this year are expected to slow the prison population’s growth. But it is still on pace to expand by 25 percent by 2026.
Many of the conservative lawmakers who opposed changes to the criminal justice system in the past have left office. And both major candidates running to replace the term-limited Fallin have voiced strong support for lowering Oklahoma’s incarceration rate.
“Right now, we’re incarcerating people we’re mad at. We’re not really afraid of them,” said Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt, the Republican candidate for governor. “I’ll lead on this effort to turn that around.”
Kris Steele, a Baptist minister and former Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House, is leading a coalition of political, business and community leaders dedicated to reducing the state’s prison population. The group spearheaded the 2016 ballot question, and he said another initiative is possible.
Still, the district attorneys wield tremendous power and influence over state lawmakers and policymakers. Although district attorneys stand for election every four years, they often don’t draw an opponent. Of the 27 in office, only eight are being challenged in this year’s election.
After a package of bills aimed at reducing the prison population gained bipartisan support last year, a prosecutor-turned-legislator managed to bottle them up in a committee, despite the objections of the governor. When similar bills were introduced again this year, district attorneys worked to water them down.
The justice system in Oklahoma has nothing to do with justice, nor has it for years and years.
". . . those who claim to know the Mind of God, who will tell you what God thinks and how He will judge and condemn others—those people are the greatest of all blasphemers." Aloysius Xingu Leng Pendergast
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