The Oklahoma Legislature can rush a bill through the legislative process to slaughter horses and sell their flesh, but it won’t even literally fix its own house, the state Capitol building, which rains mortar down on the ideological myopia.
The failure to fix the building, both its decaying structure and internal infrastructure like plumbing, remains the most obvious image of Republican recalcitrance in their relatively short history of state-government dominance. The building, roped off in places for public safety, could be easily repaired with a bond issue or money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, but there it sits in its iconic dilapidation.
After all, our legislators have horses to slaughter and federal laws to nullify and so our state remains dotted with the tackiness of ideological laziness and historical poverty. The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, still uncompleted, is yet another highly visible statement of what has been wrought by the ascending, dominant GOP in Oklahoma: Jobs unfinished. Dreams unrealized. Mission unaccomplished.
Yet buildings are finally only inanimate objects despite their obvious historical and cultural significance. The mortar feels no pain as it falls. An uninhabited, unfinished building doesn’t cry in loneliness. Buildings can lift our spirits, but the language they speak is symbolic not syntactic.
So it goes, then, that GOP inertia in 2013 is even more spectacularly apparent when it comes to real-life humans, in particular, incarcerated humans, many of whom fill our overflowing prisons by serving time for non-violent crimes, such as simple drug possession. At 26,000 inmates and growing, Oklahoma’s corrections system leads the nation in per capita female incarceration and ranks fourth in male incarceration.
For years, I written here and elsewhere about the urgent need for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, the need for drug courts, community sentencing, rehabilitation programs, and more judicial discretion in non-violent crime cases. I’ve advocated for decriminalization of marijuana possession, and for more treatment options for addicts of harder drugs.
Meanwhile, in recent years the state became even more conservative, further embracing a short-sighted, extreme law-and-order mentality, which only creates more criminals in the long run and makes Oklahoma seem like a dark place of needless punishment both nationally and internationally. There have been some reform efforts, true, but the record is definitely mixed, and the overall numbers don’t lie.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute leads the way now in the state in advocating for criminal justice reform, and recently laid out the case in a compelling manner. Policy Analyst Gene Perry writes, “We continue to follow counterproductive policies that push Oklahomans who are trying to escape addiction and contribute to society into a downward spiral, and the problem is growing more costly to taxpayers every year.”
OK Policy’s work in this area is well worth considering, and it even received an endorsement in an editorial by The Oklahoman, an ultra-conservative newspaper now owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz.
Sure, we should applaud The Oklahoman in this case, but just the day before the newspaper published another editorial about the intensity of support for the death penalty here in the state. The editorial makes this clear in italics: “There is no shame in this intensity of support.” So as other states return to their senses on this volatile issue, most Oklahomans support the death penalty wholeheartedly.
There really should be “shame” in the intensity of support for the death penalty here, but, beyond shame spirals, such support shows why criminal justice reform is so difficult to achieve here. The state’s largest newspaper can validate the state’s death penalty proponents on one morning and then call for criminal justice reform the morning after. They cancel each other out.
No major, systemic criminal justice reform can happen here without a seismic shift in how we define crime and what we do with criminals, and that has to include a long overdue discussion about the death penalty, the most punitive punishment. What needs to happens here is a collective epiphany, of sorts, and that’s probably not going to happen with a current Republican government that can’t even take care of its own house and with the contradictions of The Oklahoman.