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Oklahoma criminal justice reform task force requests extension

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An inmate has his handcuffs removed after arriving at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, Friday , April 18, 2014. [File photo/The Oklahoman]
An inmate has his handcuffs removed after arriving at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, Friday , April 18, 2014. [File photo/The Oklahoman]

A governor-created task force charged with making criminal justice reform recommendations has asked for a one-year extension to continue its work.

More work is needed, the task force wrote in a report issued Friday to Gov. Kevin Stitt and legislative leaders.

"Sometimes we do a lot of quick fixes, and I really commend the group coming together that instead of just looking at a fix, we're looking at transformational change," said Tricia Everest, ex-officio chair of the task force.

Stitt created the 15-member body, called the Criminal Justice Reentry, Supervision, Treatment and Opportunity Reform Task Force, or RESTORE, through an executive order in May.

The group was tasked with studying ways to reduce Oklahoma's incarceration rate, reduce recidivism, enhance and establish diversion programs, and improve other aspects of the state's criminal justice system. The task force had until Friday to submit its findings and recommendations.

A senior adviser in the governor’s office said Friday that leaders there plan to extend the task force in the coming weeks.

"From this report, two things are abundantly clear," Stitt said in a statement. "First, we must continue to focus on cultural change in the prisons, where state government is viewing an inmate as a person, and creating a plan to ensure they return as a productive and contributing member of our society. Second, we must implement bold reforms to our criminal code in order to provide more clarity around sentencing."

Some groups reacting to the report called for more direct and urgent action.

“While we applaud the RESTORE task force for recommending changes to the state’s unfair and outdated cash bail system and failed reentry policies and practices, we believe that this crisis is too urgent for further delay," Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said in a statement.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute said the RESTORE Task Force report identified some positive ideas, but it lacked "bold — and specific — legislative changes to fully match the scale of Oklahoma's incarceration crisis."

The task force wrote in its report that it avoided easy solutions and quick fixes because the challenges in the state's criminal justice system are "far too numerous and complex for such limited approaches."

Everest said the task force explored the criminal justice system from multiple perspectives and looked at the lifespan of those incarcerated to understand how to prevent, train, treat and reduce barriers to creating competent citizens.

"We don't want to just put people back into the communities and positions where they came from without looking at root causes and without having plans in place for greater success," she said.

A recurring theme during meetings was that prevention is key, the report notes. To enact true reform, the state must focus not only on reducing incarceration, but also on preventing childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences.

The group recommended that officials begin planning for an offender's release no later than the day he or she enters the prison system. Transition fairs, which were held last year to help inmates who were eligible for an expedited commutation process, should be continued, the report states.

Other task force recommendations include:

• Creating an accredited seminary or Bible college program for the corrections system to be funded by private donations.

• Creating a chief cultural officer within the Department of Corrections.

• Expanding on pilots using technology in rural counties to connect people with mental health professionals, supervision and probation services.

Darla Slipke

Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut, North Carolina and Oklahoma, including a previous... Read more ›

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