Kris Steele - Incarceration Issues
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Show 1712: Kris Steele - Incarceration Issues
Air Date: March 19, 2017
Rob McClendon: Kris Steele served as Oklahoma’s speaker of the house in 2011-2012 before being term limited out. And it was in his final year at the Capitol Steele pushed through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative – a plan that would have increased the use of sentencing alternatives. And while the legislation was approved by the legislature in subsequent years, it was never fully funded and has yet to meet its goals. But for Steele, the fight for justice reform continues as a private citizen and the executive director of a group called TEEM and he joined me earlier in our studio. So, Kris, when you left state government, you went directly to TEEM. Why is that?
Kris Steele: I did because during my tenure in the legislature I became very interested in how the state of Oklahoma deals with the issue of incarceration. And through the process of studying the issue and trying to determine what may be a better course of action for our state, I had the opportunity to visit most of the state prisons in Oklahoma and meet with individuals who were within three to six months of being released. And it was in the process of meeting those individuals that I discovered that these men and women are very talented. They have skills and gifts to offer society and are really just looking for an opportunity to contribute to the greater good. And yet in Oklahoma, collectively when a person has paid their debt and served their time, we would give that individual $50 and a one-way bus ticket. And it’s just not a good outcome, and so I was seeking an opportunity, I was looking for a forum that I could work to demonstrate what may be a better approach to helping people reintegrate back into the community and really reaching their potential as an individual and as an Oklahoman. And so that’s what led me to The Education and Employment Ministry, which is a nonprofit based to do exactly that.
Rob McClendon: And I think it should be said, this is not only a social issue but it’s definitely an economic issue for Oklahoma.
Steele: There’s no doubt about it. In Oklahoma, when we say that we’re spending for corrections, we’re really spending for incarceration. And our public safety rating has really not changed significantly in the last 10 years, even though our spending for corrections has increased by over 34 percent. And so making sure that we actually are hitting our targets and actually reducing crime and increasing public safety, I think it’s very, very important. And we want to make sure and be responsible with the resources that we’ve been entrusted with. And so being smart about how we spend resources on corrections kind of issues and public safety related issues is very, very important. We don’t need to be just tough on crime, we need to be tough on criminal spending and make sure that we’re getting a positive return on investments so that we can have safer neighborhoods and a stronger economy and really improved quality of life for everyone.
Rob: So when I sat down with you when you were speaker of the house and you were authoring the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, I asked you this: Do justice reform, do they mean spending less or does it mean spending better?
Steele: It means spending better. The reality is, instead of spending all of our resources on incarceration for individuals who really do not pose a threat to public safety or risk to society, there’s no research that indicates that that’s actually good for public safety. In fact, the research would offer the opposite, and the data would indicate that when we incarcerate a nonviolent offender, even for a short period of time, and fail to address root issues such as substance abuse or mental illness, lack of education, lack of job training, lack of basic life skills, statistically that individual will transition back into our communities at a greater risk to public safety than even before they were incarcerated. I mean, it stands to reason that if an individual battles substance abuse issues before they were incarcerated and does not receive any sort of intervention or treatment or help with that issue, when they transition out they’re still gonna battle addiction only this time they’re not gonna be able to find a job because they’re a convicted felon. And the stigma associated with that often knocks a person out of even being considered for employment opportunities. Sometimes they can’t even find a place to live. They have a family to take care of. Now, they have enormous fees and fines that they have to pay back in conjunction with their sentence, and they’ve picked up some pretty bad habits along the way from being in an environment that’s hostile and being around hardened criminals.