OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City, the chair of the Majority Caucus in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, today held an interim study examining the issue of restorative justice as an alternative to traditional criminal justice models for non-violent offenders.
The study was held before the House Judiciary Committee.
“I wanted to take a closer look at restorative justice programs and how they are working in other states and how they might be a viable alternative here in Oklahoma as part of our overall reform of the criminal justice system,” West said.
Jason Hicks, a prosecutor with Oklahoma’s Sixth Prosecutorial District, explained how he got interested in restorative justice as an alternative form of justice in Oklahoma.
Hicks said there are too many people inside our prisons on low-level, non-violent charges. Restorative justice keeps people safe but deals with these offenders in a different way. What caught his attention was the program was victim-centered. He said it is so important for victims to have a voice in anything that is done. Another plus was the low recidivism rates for offenders who went through the program. It also is community-driven, which is something missing from traditional criminal justice programs.
He said the program restores the victim and the community while educating the offender.
Jeff Reisig, the district attorney for Yolo County, CA, and Nicole Kirklady, director of Neighborhood Court in Yolo County, spoke about the success of their program.
Reisig said he’s a traditional DA serving a mix of rural and urban cities, much like most of Oklahoma. He said his mission is to seek justice and do justice, but he found that often in the traditional court system it worked too much like a turnstile, giving victims very little say in the punishment of their offender. This program is completely voluntary for both the offender and the victim, and it gives victims a say in a punishment they feel is appropriate. He said victims are compensated for their crimes and they work to make sure the victim is made whole. It also gives community volunteers an opportunity to have input into the process. It’s also important to note, Reisig said, that the offender by the end of the program is restored to the community where they can become an active participant again, which he said adds to the success of the program.
He said this has reduced incarceration and recidivism rates in his county. He said another important component is that this is DA-driven and not something forced upon the DAs. He also said his department has been able to make this work on a shoestring budget.
Reisig explained the program does not take sex offenders, DUI offenders or perpetrators of certain other crimes. He did say, however, that many of the people that formerly were on the other side of the picket line from prosecutors, the police and the courts have now become their best community partners.
Carrie Slaton-Hodges, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuses Services, said this type of program could help Oklahoma in several ways. It would give offenders an opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and to listen to the side of victims and the community about how their crime impacted them, which is incredibly important in changing behavior. She said this also could help stop offenders earlier in their trajectory before crimes move from misdemeanors to felonies. In addition, it gives communities the opportunity to see where changes might be needed to help stop some offenses. For instance, were crimes committed because of a lack of access to food, transportation or other services?
Jari Askins, director of the Oklahoma Administrative Office of the Courts, and Phil Johnson with the Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) Program, explained how the ADR program currently works in Oklahoma and how that program might be used to support a restorative justice model here in the state.
Kathryn Brewer with the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council spoke about potential legislation that could help create a restorative justice program in Oklahoma. She said there are easy statutory fixes that could make a pilot program available as soon as next Nov. 1 as long as funding can be identified. She said the program would be a win-win for everyone.