Friday, September 20, 2019

What is Criminal Justice Reform? By State Rep. Jim Olsen

Rep. Jim Olsen

Criminal justice reform has been a very popular topic at the Capitol lately.

Ostensibly, the argument goes something like this: “Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the world. We must reduce our incarceration rate.” “We should decriminalize drug use because it’s a sickness, not a crime.” “We should decriminalize drug dealing and burglary because they’re nonviolent.” “We must do away with the whole bail bonds system.” “We should let some arrest warrants expire.” “This shameful situation must be remedied.” 

There are some good ideas there. But is criminal justice reform entirely right? I would argue no, because some of these ideas put our law-abiding citizens at risk. 

First, the arguments above don’t place the emphasis where it needs to be. They emphasize making things better for the criminal, when the focus should be on the safety of our citizens and keeping the crime rate as low as possible. 

Second, these talking points say that higher incarceration is a bad thing. That hasn’t been the case here in Sequoyah County. When our new county sheriff, Larry Lane, took office in 2017, there were about 78 people in the county jail at once. Now, two years later, there are about 128 people in jail at any given moment. He and his team increased the incarceration rate by 64%! 

Many people at the Capitol would call this both terrible and shameful, but Sequoyah County residents have watched the crime rate drop by 60%. We’ve seen firsthand that a higher incarceration rate results in lower crime! The reality is that this has been good for the citizens of Sequoyah County. They are safer from crime than they were before.

Third, this approach to criminal justice reform removes the responsibility from the individual. People started arguing years ago that alcoholism was just a sickness, and now that attitude has been applied to drug use. The issue with this is that God’s word puts the responsibility for these sins, and the judgment that comes with them, at the feet of the drunkard (that’s the Biblical term). The same is true of the drug user, and taking this stance means these people will never be held responsible for their actions on this earth. 

Fourth, these changes keep people out of jail that need to be in jail. Some argue that burglary is a nonviolent crime, so required jail time is unnecessary. If you commit burglary in my home, you may be perceived as a threat, and therefore you may get hurt. If for some reason this doesn’t happen, you still need to be in jail, as burglary is often the first crime a person may commit before their actions escalate into even more dangerous territory. I think the people of Sequoyah County agree with me on this.

Fifth, this crowd wants to do away with the bail system. Instead, they argue that people will just show up for court. In areas where bail reform is implemented, about half of defendants do not show up for their court dates, and they often commit new crimes while running from the law. 

Despite these issues, there are also several good aspects of criminal justice reform. 

First, I’m impressed with the strong emphasis on better and more extensive drug rehabilitation programs. It’s great for us to give a hand up to drug users who truly want to change their lives!

Second, we passed measures this session to make it easier for those leaving prison to become licensed in various occupations. Employment is an immediate need of those leaving our system, and it helps prevent them from falling back into crime. 

Third, there is an emphasis on reducing the number of laws that are unnecessarily harsh. I’m authoring a bill, House Bill 1001, to help address one of these cases. Right now, our law says a felon who is released from prison can go to jail for up to 10 years if there is a firearm in the same car they are in, even if the firearm is not theirs. 

Consider a local church pastor who is riding down the road and chooses to carry a firearm. If he offers a man a ride, and the man happens to be a felon, the passenger could go to jail for 10 years if the vehicle was stopped by law enforcement. HB1001 would remove this senseless penalty. This is the kind of criminal justice reform that I am in favor of!

Criminal justice reform has some good aspects and some bad ones. I will continue to be very careful with all of these proposals at the Capitol, and the safety of our law-abiding citizens will always be my top priority. 

Rep. Jim Olsen represents District 2 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, which includes portions of Sequoyah County.

Submitted by Rep. Jim Olsen

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