Kris Steele
Three months after her release from prison, Damita Price speaks at an Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform press conference Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (William W. Savage III)

Damita Price’s voice trembled as she stood at the podium in Gov. Mary Fallin’s large conference room this afternoon. Fallin was not there herself, but Price dropped her name when discussing the 21 years and three months she spent in prison for a drug trafficking life sentence.

“God touched Mary Fallin’s heart, and she commuted my sentence,” Price said during an Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform press conference. “Mary Fallin, she signed my papers, and she gave me a new chance at life when nobody else would.”

The governor had appeared in the same room two days earlier with district attorneys to announce an agreement — without legislative language — on six criminal justice reform bills.

But Wednesday, OCJR chairman Kris Steele and others criticized district attorneys and lambasted a lack of “transparency” in how the bills’ new language has yet to be released.

“Maybe these reforms are positive,” Steele said. “It’s hard to endorse something that you’ve never seen. We wish there was more transparency. Just through the rumor mill, we’ve heard that there are good things, but we’ve also heard that there are things we need to be concerned about.”

Asked to identify the major disconnect between his group and the district attorneys, Steele referenced his “personal conversations” with DAs.

“I think the district attorneys are reluctant to give up what they perceive as power or control,” Steele said. “I think they’re also concerned about resources that may be used to help finance their offices. In a tight budget year, I think that’s a concern that they have.”

Larry Nichols: ‘You want your tax dollars to be spent prudently’

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, spoke Wednesday as well, calling Price’s story one of the most powerful he’d ever heard.

“Somebody had to look at her and say, ‘She deserves to die in prison.’ And do you know who that was? It was a district attorney,” Kiesel said.

Price’s lengthy Oklahoma Department of Corrections record indicates she was convicted by a jury, however.

Kiesel said DAs have overseen a broken system for decades that has resulted in Oklahoma incarcerating more people per capita than basically any state in the nation. He said Oklahoma’s criminal justice system has had “huge, disparate impacts on communities of color, on women.”

“We should be very suspect of anything that comes out of this agreement,” Kiesel said of Monday’s announcement.

Steele was also joined by OCJR board members including businessmen Gene Rainbolt and Larry Nichols.

“You may ask why a business person is here,” said Nichols, chairman emeritus of Devon Energy. “It’s really very simple. First, it’s the obvious humanitarian thing. Second, as a taxpayer, whether as an individual taxpayer or a corporate taxpayer, you want your tax dollars to be spent prudently. We’re not doing that.”

Nichols said every million dollars spent on incarcerating Oklahomans is money not available for teachers and other pressing needs.

“It makes no sense to take someone whose crime is multiple traffic violations and put them in a maximum-security jail,” Nichols said. “It makes no sense to take someone who has a drug problem and put them in a prison without treatment for their drug problem.

“We have a long, long way to go.”

Steele did say he agreed with district attorneys who Monday said the criminal code needs a complete re-write.

“It’s absolutely necessary. We want to make sure that it’s a balanced, inclusive representation of the people of Oklahoma,” Steele said. “But I do agree that the entire criminal code needs to be re-written. But we cannot wait to pass the reforms in front of us today to do that. We can do both. We are smart people in Oklahoma. We can multitask.”

(Update: This story was updated at 6:05 p.m. Wednesday, March 7, to note Damita Price’s conviction by a jury.)


criminal justice reform bills

Agreement announced on criminal justice reform bills by William W. Savage III