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Point of View: Restorative justice, the path forward

Rep. Collin Walke
Rep. Collin Walke

For far too long, Oklahoma's Legislature abided by the Old Testament concept of "an eye for an eye" when it came to criminal justice. This path not only disregarded the Old Testament concept of restorative justice, like the year of Jubilee, in which all debt was wiped out to allow a fresh start for many, but it also led to Oklahoma having the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world.

Fortunately, the Legislature has woken up to the profound reality that we can restore people to productive lives through diversion programs and specialty courts like drug courts and mental health courts. These programs are proven to be successful in reducing recidivism and changing lives for the better. Years of hard work on restorative justice recently resulted in the largest commutation in American history.

And while that is undoubtedly good news, we have much more we need to do.

First, we need to address how we fund our judiciary and district attorneys of this state. We are far too reliant on fines and fees that create a debtor's prison for many, instead of figuring out ways to fund our judiciary and district attorneys through general appropriations. Second, we need to address the length of time people who cannot afford bail for non-violent offenses remain in jail. If two people are charged with the same crime and one can afford bail and go back to work while the other cannot, then justice is determined by the size of your wallet, not the size of your crime. Third, we need to invest on the front end in expanding mental health courts. This would save taxpayers $15,000 per year per participant instead of incarceration.

Little progress has been made on criminal justice reform issues this year, and I fear that Gov. Kevin Stitt will ride the commutation wave and expect that to be the end all be all discussion on criminal justice reform. We need to remember that we are not at the end of creating a more just society, we are still on the path. Oklahomans deserve a criminal justice system that prioritizes safety and rehabilitation, not a system that simply sets sentences and throws away the key.

The good news is we have a road map. Reliable funding, mental health courts and diversion programs will move the state forward. It is time to leave the failed policy of being "tough on crime" in the rear-view mirror and forge ahead by restoring people to lives of productivity. Imagine that.

Walke, D-Oklahoma City, represents Distict 87 in the Oklahoma House.