Former House Speaker Kris Steele met with the newly established nonprofit Uprising this week, serving as the featured guest speaker at the group's second monthly meeting.

THE ISSUE: Oklahoma among highest in incarceration rates.

LOCAL IMPACT: Former legislator shares TEEM plan to reform the state correctional system.

Former House Speaker Kris Steele met with the newly established nonprofit Uprising this week, serving as the featured guest speaker at the group's second monthly meeting.

He shared his work as executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), and how it is dedicated to helping those impacted by the state's correctional system.

“Oklahoma's incarceration rate today is 78 percent higher than the national average,” he said. “Oklahoma incarcerates women at two-and-a-half times the national average.”

Oklahoma has had the number one female incarceration rate since 1991 — for 25 years, Steele said.

“The U.S. Sentencing Commission just released a report about six months ago that indicated that Oklahoma now incarcerates African Americans at the highest percentage per capita of any state in the nation,” he said.

Steele said around 2009, when he was still a legislator he was given some additional responsibility — to review the state budget.

“I was to try to find some areas that we could some increase efficiency and make better use of taxpayer resources,” he said. “And as I began to pour through our financial trends, the thing that jumped out to me, was that in 2009 the spending for incarceration had become our state's second-fastest growing expenditure.

“Those spending decisions were based in the name of reducing crime and increasing public safety,” he said.

Steele said he initially thought the trend was a good thing, since he figured it meant Oklahoma's data must be the lowest in the country.

He was wrong.

“When I did my homework I realized that even though we were spending more than we ever had, incarcerated more people than we ever had — in 2009, Oklahoma's prison population was at 99.2-percent capacity.

Even though we were incarcerating more people and spending more money, our crime rate continued to increase.

“Maybe it was a sign of the times,” he said.

Steele dug deeper.

“At that point, 20 states had experienced a decrease in crime rate, … it did not make any sense to me,” he said.

He said a light bulb came on with an Oklahoma study that came out in 2010 that measures a person's level of risk to the community.

“Everybody admitted into the Department of Corrections (DOC) is given a four-hour assessment; and it's given again upon exiting the system,” he said.

The Level of Service Inventory–Revised (LSI-R) measures that person's level of risk for committing crimes in the community — low, medium or high risk.

Of everyone incarcerated in Oklahoma, 94 percent will be released back into the community at some point, he said.

“Without fail, the study determined every person posed a greater risk to public safety after they had been incarcerated than before they went in,” he said.

They are tagged with a felony conviction that stays with them for life, Steele said.

That automatically excludes them from most employment and housing opportunities, he said, and the state gives them 48 hours before they have to start paying their fees and fines.

“We won't let them work anywhere; we won't let them live anywhere; they have to pay back their fees and fines — failure to pay is a violation of probation, which could land them back in prison,” he said, “and often does.”

Whatever that core issue is that's driving the anti-social behavior — most likely addiction or mental illness — they are still dealing with that core issue because there's no treatment inside prisons in Oklahoma, Steele said.

“And on top of everything else, that individual has picked up additional anti-social behavior from being warehoused in a very hostile environment with people who have taught them how to be a criminal,” he said.

Steele said it's all they can do at the DOC just to keep things functioning at the prisons.

Steele said, according to current prison population data, Oklahoma's prison system is now running at 110-percent capacity and spending continues to increase.

“Now we are spending over half a billion to incarcerate,” he said. “The DOC just amended its new financial request for the next fiscal year and requested an additional $2 billion to build more prisons.”

Spending for incarceration has increased 174 percent in the past two decades, he said.

“The state has to follow a balanced budget amendment in the constitution; we cannot appropriate more money than it takes in,” he said. “That means whatever is going to incarceration is not going somewhere else, like education, health care, transportation, etc.”

It gets worse, Steele said.

“Children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to become incarcerated than their peers,” he said. “In our zeal to score political points and be tough on crime, we've actually made it worse and created a generational curse … a cycle of oppression in Oklahoma.”

He said the reason Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate is because it jails people for reasons no one else does.

Steele said the prison capacity in Texas was at 99 percent in 2007 and they reformed their sentencing guidelines to make a distinction between lower-level offenders and higher ones.

“They put money into health care and treatment,” he said. “They followed through. At the end of 2016, Texas had saved over $3 billion in avoiding additional incarceration costs, closed three state prisons and 14 juvenile detention centers in the last nine years — and crime is at a 30-year low.”

State Questions 780 and 781 (reclassifying certain property offenses and simple drug possession as misdemeanor crimes) were passed by voters in November.

“As you may know, the legislature is trying to keep those from standing.” he said. “It has been a constant barrage trying to protect the reforms that the people enacted.”

There is no such thing as a spare Oklahoman, Steele said.

“Why in the world we would be willing to exclude somebody for life because they have been impacted by the criminal justice system is beyond me,” he said. “I believe our community is at its strongest and healthiest when everyone is able to contribute to the greater good; I also believe in second chances.”

He said he's very thankful that he's not known for his worst moments in life.

“I don't think it's fair that we judge a person who has stumbled and been impacted by incarceration by his or her worst moment — at least not for life,” Steele said.

About TEEM

TEEM is an interfaith nonprofit organization dedicated to breaking cycles of incarceration and poverty through education, personal development and work-readiness training, according to its website, at TEEM.org.

TEEM has served Oklahomans in need with education, social services, job training and job placement assistance since 1987, the site reads. In the past 26 years, TEEM has served more than 13,000 Oklahomans.

According to the site, TEEM takes a three-pronged approach to breaking cycles of incarceration and poverty in Oklahoma by providing individuals with education, social services, and job training and placement.

“By giving a hand up, we help our participants refine their skills and achieve their goals,” the site reads.

You can reach Vicky O. Misa at (405) 214-3962.