Oklahoma has decided to alleviate prison overcrowding by releasing inmates doing time for some non-violent offenses. And, they have lessened some penalties on those same crimes to avoid sending more inmates into the system in the future.
In Nebraska, we’re giving hiring bonuses to attract guards and forcing mandatory 12-hour shifts. The prison system remains at 159 percent of capacity at one institution, but wages and work hours have created a bigger staffing crisis, which has attracted the attention of the system’s top brass and governor.
The Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee has been working on alternative sentencing and other measures to reduce the population. But the “do the crime, do the time” mentality prevails.
Oklahoma’s law, signed by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, builds on a ballot initiative passed by voters in 2016 to help ease the incarceration crisis by reducing punishment for certain nonviolent crimes. While the voter-approved law affected future offenders, the bill that passed a Republican-led Legislature makes the move retroactive, resulting in an estimated 1,000 to 3,500 inmates being released and the chance for approximately 60,000 former prisoners to get their records expunged.
Coupled with that bill are others, not yet passed, aimed at addressing a criminal justice system that many believe is too expensive, ineffective and creating a generational cycle of crime and punishment. As in many other states, Oklahoma prisons operate as the default answer for drug addiction and mental illness.
Oklahoma’s Board of Corrections says it needs $884 million to expand capacity by another 5,200 beds. Director Joe Allbaugh said the state continues to send more people to prison, and it costs real money to house, look after and provide those individuals with required medical care.
Term-limited former state Sen. Kris Steele assembled a team of Oklahoma business leaders, policy analysts, lawyers, advocates and former felons to address the issue that piqued his interest when he saw the large amount of taxpayer money going to corrections and realized that didn’t correlate with a safer state. Despite sending more people to prison, Oklahoma had more crime than its contiguous states. And the criminal justice system is broken.
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Oklahoma is doing some other things right, such as transitional homes for formerly incarcerated people to get them on their feet. Programs of education, mental health, rehabilitation and family structure are also helping. BancFirst founder H.E. Rainbolt said the state has to move beyond a system that has become “a felony factory.”
In Mississippi, Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed legislation in April that will allow ex-offenders to obtain professional licenses despite their criminal record. The Mississippi Fresh Start Act prevents occupational licensing boards from creating policies that prevent ex-offenders from holding certain jobs. Bryant, a former law enforcement officer turned leader in criminal justice reform, has also signed into law an expansion of the state's intervention courts – an alternative to jail time – to include mental health and veterans’ courts, in addition to drug courts. Nebraska, to its credit, has those as well.
How about a court for drunken driving issues in Nebraska?
The bottom line, put fewer people behind bars and increase formerly incarcerated peoples’ chances of success after their release. Though Mississippi still has the third-highest incarceration rate in the country, scholars call the state a key leader in the area of criminal justice reform.
Bryant told a panel of the National Governors Association Winter Meeting earlier this year that Mississippi has reduced its prison population by 11 percent and saved the state $46 million in incarceration costs since the new laws took effect.
In Pennsylvania, inmates and their children are encouraged to work together on craft projects during visitation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has funded the program in an effort to continue family relationships and prevent traumatized children. The director of the state’s Human Relations Commission came up with the idea to allow children and their parents to experience natural bonding during their time together.
Three states with some great ideas for criminal justice reform. Come on Nebraska, we can do better than hiring bonuses and mandatory 12-hour shifts for corrections staff.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 20 years.