Why You Should Be A Criminal Legal Reform Advocate

There is little disagreement that Oklahoma’s criminal legal system is broken. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world for a reason. One in five Oklahomans has a criminal record. This means you probably know someone or are someone who has been impacted by our system.

Despite significant progress made over recent years by criminal legal reform advocates, our state continues to toggle between being the 2nd and 3rd highest incarcerator in the nation and thus the world. Our incarceration rate for men and women is nearly double the national average.

Oklahoma locks up a higher percentage of its citizens than repressive nations like Saudi Arabia and China, but the advocacy of regular Oklahomans can alter these facts. Advocacy has already led to historic positive reforms. Since 2016, Oklahoma closed four prisons and lowered the state prison population by over 20 percent in that same period. This is directly due to the effort of regular Oklahoman voters to demand change. 

Advocacy works. Through SQ780 and SQ781, Oklahoma drastically reduced prison admissions for simple drug possession from nearly 1,900 in Fiscal Year 2017 to only 78 in Fiscal Year 2021. Advocates have also rallied to support campaigns for justice like Project Commutation, the Justice for Julius Campaign, and various other initiatives that undid past injustices. These positive outcomes prove once and for all how important community voices are in demanding and making meaningful change.

Every Oklahoman should be a criminal legal reform advocate because this issue impacts us all. For some, becoming an advocate may seem intimidating at first. After all, most of us aren’t policy experts or for that matter even know who our legislative representatives are or how to contact them. But we must continue to do better – as a state and as individuals. 

Joining Oklahoma’s criminal legal reform movement is a way to actually make a meaningful difference, and we need passionate, concerned Oklahomans who want to improve our state to do it. This can be done by participating in an advocacy group, volunteering with and supporting our mission or the mission of one of the organizations within our coalition, resharing a post to educate others on how our laws and policies are affecting our state, or reflecting on criminal justice issues over the kitchen table or coffee with friends and family. You could even join us at the Capitol for a Day of Advocacy to speak with lawmakers.

Whether it’s education, mental health, housing or a myriad of other social issues- the failures of Oklahoma’s criminal legal system impact every community in our state. Low income Oklahomans that encounter the system are penalized for their lack of resources.  In some Oklahoma counties legally innocent people spend over six months in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay bail – which also increases the likelihood they will receive a conviction. For those that complete their sentences and are released, they are often inundated with debt from incredibly high court fines and fees that they cannot afford. This court debt makes it harder to keep a driver’s license, find a nice home or even put food on the table. Reform advocates can give voice to these often forgotten communities. 

These issues also impact historically marginalized communities. Oklahoma remains one of the top incarcerators on the planet for Black Americans and women. At every stage of our criminal legal system from policing to sentencing, racial disparities and inequities are seen. Black Oklahomans are incarcerated at a rate that is four times higher than White Oklahomans despite Black Oklahomans only representing eight percent of the population. Oklahoma is rapidly becoming a top incarcerator for American Indian women, who are three times more likely to be incarcerated than White women. As a group, women – over 80 percent of which are mothers – oftentimes receive harsher sentences than their male counterparts through laws like Failure to Protect and others that criminalize domestic abuse survivors for overcoming their abuser.

This incarceration crisis impacts everyone. 

Oklahoma spent nearly $718 million in 2022 over the state’s Department of Corrections budget to imprison people. The repercussions of maintaining such a system is enormous – fiscally and in terms of human costs. There is a dire need for the expansion and normalization of the use of cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, such as drug treatment programs, mental health services, and community-based accountability programs. This is particularly true for low income rural communities with lower access to treatment and diversion. There is also a need for Oklahomans to invest in preventive and preemptive care before crime happens in the first place.

Oklahoma’s excessively long sentences and propensity to lock people up haven't made us more safe. Oklahoma still maintains crime rates higher than the national average.  More incarceration is not the answer. Overcriminalization simply leads to worsened economic and social outcomes. The negative impact on individuals, families, and entire communities oftentimes is cyclical and lasts for generations. The state needs a diverse and passionate group of advocates from every community to fundamentally change these issues for the better.  

We need your voice to help speak up and push for smart, evidence-based reforms that strengthen and heal our communities, that are cost effective, and that reflect the values we say we possess and the Standard we proudly proclaim. It’s time to shun the mantras that have led us to this point that only serve to punish and cause more harm to our state economy and populace. We can be vindictive or we can be restored and healthy, but we can’t be both. 

You should be a criminal legal reform advocate because Oklahoma needs voices like yours to help inform good policy and generate momentum for real change that actually makes every Oklahomans safe. This incarceration crisis is an us issue and we need all of us to address it.

If you're interested in being heard, build your volunteer profile with us today.