Last week, Gov. Kevin Stitt inked a new law that could help nonviolent felons find decent jobs after their release from prison. It's a move that's long overdue, and one an increasing number of Oklahomans sanction.
Oklahomans cross party lines on a few issues, and prison reform is one of them. Voters have signaled for several years that they are sick of for-profit prisons and the way their owners and stockholders grow wealthy on the backs of the desperate. Putting hardened criminals behind bars is one thing, but mixing in people who stole candy bars at Walmart or had joints in the console of their pickup, just for the sake of profits, is not to many people's liking.
That was clear a few years back, when Oklahomans overwhelmingly passed State Question 780. That measure changed minor drug possession and certain lower-level property crimes to misdemeanors. A companion bill routed the money saved into treatment for addition and other problems.
Now, House Bill 1373, dubbed the "Fresh Start Act," offers occupational licensing to convicted felons for individual professions, provided they are unrelated to the crime for which the person in question was convicted. This makes sense. These people have paid their debt to society, but all too often, they can't get adequate training, and no one wants to hire them.
Previously, state law was nebulous enough to allow this "discrimination" even against minor felons, saying that to get occupational licenses, they must be "of good moral character or have not been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude." But that's been up for interpretation, and winds up working against someone who is no threat to the public.
How can the public expect a newly released inmate to reintegrate into society under those negative conditions? The answer is, it can't. That's why the rate of recidivism is so high. Many felons, finding no one wants to give them a chance to prove themselves, wind up reoffending. Caught up in a cycle of hopelessness, they return to prison, ultimately making it a permanent home. What should have been a punitive measure aimed at rehabilitation has become a life sentence.
This new ray of sunshine won't just help former inmates; it will be good for the public, too. The ranks of plumbers, heating and air technicians, electricians, carpenters and more are growing thin, and need a new infusion of skilled workers. This is a great opportunity.
As far as State Question 780, there's more good news on that end, too. The Legislature - in a comparatively rare move that's actually good for the state - opted last week to make that law retroactive to Nov. 1. Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, pointed out this could mean that a number of the folks caught up in this net could even be home for the holidays.
When it comes to "progressive" politics, one doesn't have to march behind the banner of the donkey or the elephant. By definition, "progress" is good - and prison reform fits that bill.