smart on crime

Feb. 15, 2011, is etched into my memory. That’s the day our son, Chad, was the victim of a horrific, violent crime, and our lives — plus those of his, family and friends — changed forever. The perpetrators were ultimately charged, convicted and are currently serving time in prison.

As someone significantly impacted by crime and also working in the victim advocacy field, I had a “tough on crime” perspective. I believed that all people should be punished for their actions, and that meant being locked away.

However, I have come to believe that rehabilitation is what is needed, both within and outside of our prison walls. I learned that prison isn’t always the best option, especially for people who commit low-level offenses. I realized people can actually learn to become better criminals while incarcerated.

As an advocate, my goal is to prevent more people from becoming victims. That’s why I support an ongoing effort to change how we treat people who have broken the law.

Cycling people in and out of prison

I have the privilege of serving on the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force formed two years ago. Representing diverse perspectives on the issue, task force members worked together to develop 27 recommendations to safely reduce incarceration and reinvest those savings in treatment alternatives.

The package of recommendations was ultimately postponed last session, but lawmakers have a chance to right the wrong this year and pass those reforms.

Our current justice system cycles people in and out of prison, never getting appropriate programming to correct their behavior. Individuals can’t receive proper treatment stuck behind four gritty walls in a grossly underfunded, overcrowded prison system that currently sits at 113 percent of capacity. They need a tailored treatment plan to change the behaviors that led them to crime, and research validates that this is a more successful approach to reducing crime overall. Isn’t this what we all want?

I understand the desire for punishment. I also want to ensure that no other family has to experience what my family did.

To do that, the state has to invest in what makes sense, like treatment and programming, not just more punishment. Keeping our communities safe does not mean that everyone has to go to prison for long sentences.

In fact, research shows that long prison terms do not reduce recidivism more than shorter terms. Long prison terms should be for those who commit horrific crimes — those who are truly a danger to our families, friends, neighbors and our communities.

I believe we can do better, Oklahoma. Over 30 states — including “tough on crime” states like Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi — have used a similar method and reduced their incarceration rates while reducing crime. Our current system that maintains the status quo has resulted in Oklahoma leading the nation in the incarceration of women and ranking second in overall incarceration of our citizens.

Criminal justice reform must be addressed. A “smart on crime” approach is vital to altering our broken, cost-draining justice system. Without changes to our laws, our sentencing system, fees and fines, and more, we are assuring a cycle of crime and poverty for generations, rather than keeping our community safe.

My point of view may not be popular with everyone in a “tough-on-crime” state like Oklahoma, but it’s time we look at the research and become a state that is “smart on crime.”

Janet L. Peery is the CEO for YWCA Oklahoma City. A Certified Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Professional (CDSVRP), she has established YWCA OKC as a leading provider of domestic violence and sexual assault services in Oklahoma over her 20 years leading the organization.