Oklahoma Should Launch Major Initiative To Reduce Incarceration Rate

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Oklahoma needs to drastically reduce its prison population by finding alternatives to jail time for convicted, non-violent offenders.

Right now, the prevailing law enforcement and state corrections philosophy, supported by neoconservative ideology, is to incarcerate as many people as possible. The basic idea is that severe punishments, including long prison sentences, will deter crime. Yet the incarceration rates keep growing. Oklahoma, for example, has the highest percentage of incarcerated women in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice. Ultimately, this distinction should be the state’s shame, not a point of honor in a numbers game often played by political leaders and by some people who work in our judicial systems and law enforcement agencies.

The high female incarceration rate creates a cycle of despair that leads to even more incarcerations. The children of imprisoned women obviously often suffer great psychological chaos that can hinder their ability to learn at school or function appropriately in society. This, in turn, can lead to even more criminal behavior and imprisonments, and thus the cycle continues.

A recent study, for example, shows that almost 80 percent of the state’s imprisoned women have children, according to a media report. The study, conducted by the Oklahoma Commission on Youth and Children, urges the creation of more programs to help incarcerated women and their children.

These programs are desperately needed, true, and should be given the highest priority, but the state also needs to focus on reducing its high incarceration rates. Oklahoma incarcerates more than double the average number of women incarcerated in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice, which claims 129 state women out of 100 are now in prison. The state’s overall incarceration is often ranked third or fourth in the nation, which has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world.

Stiffer penalties for many crimes and a get-tough mentality in recent years have created a double burden for taxpayers. Taxpayers must pay directly for the heavy costs of the rising incarceration rates, and then they must pay residual costs—more imprisonments, poor school performance, addiction and job problems—accrued by shattering families when mothers are sent to prison.

Many of the women and men imprisoned in Oklahoman are serving sentences for non-violent drug or financial offenses. These people need counseling and rehabilitation through drug court systems and other comparable programs for other crimes. The best strategy for change, though, is to try to shift philosophical and psychological attitudes throughout the state. We need to invest in better education and social programs, not prisons. As the human suffering and financial costs grow, it becomes apparent the neoconservative incarceration ideology driving our judicial system right now has obviously failed Oklahoma and the nation.

No one wants violent criminals—women or men—roaming the streets, but do we really want to be known as the state which incarcerates the most mothers in the nation? Oklahoma needs to launch a major initiative to reduce its incarceration rate.

Two Bad Bills

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Oklahomans need to oppose two very bad education-related bills pending in the state Senate.

One bill, supported by the National Rifle Association and its Oklahoma affiliate, would allow college students to carry concealed weapons in classrooms. The other bill, sponsored by radical religious extremist state Rep. Sally Kern, could prevent teachers from presenting basic scientific principles and particular historical facts in high school courses.

Both bills are the product of the same radical neoconservative ideology, supported by the corporate media here, which has given our nation a botched, meaningless Iraq military occupation that will cost at least $3 trillion and an economic system that rewards the rich as it denies decent salaries and basic health care to hard-working Americans. The bills are part of the same stew of doublespeak and deception that has defined our country’s politics under the regime of Imperial President George Bush and the conservative juggernaut here in Oklahoma.

This, then, is what most Republicans and, sadly, some “Democrats” want for Oklahoma:

House Bill 2513 would allow trained students and faculty to carry concealed weapons in Oklahoma college classrooms. The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Jason Murphey, a Guthrie Republican, who argues an armed student body might prevent or reduce the magnitude of shooting episodes like the recent event at Virginia Tech University. The National Rifle Association and its affiliate, The Oklahoma Rifle Association, support the measure. All the state’s college presidents, including University of Oklahoma President David Boren, and most, if not all, of the organizations representing college faculty, oppose the bill. They oppose the bill, and rightly so, because they believe adding guns to the classroom could create more opportunities for violence and inhibit faculty and student recruitment. Will these armed students be trained to respond to a shooting incident? What if they misread events? What if they miss their intended target and kill you or your child? Who wants to teach a room full of armed students who may or may not be trigger happy? What student wants to sit next to someone who is emotionally distraught and carrying a pistol? The bill simply seems to be a basic NRA initiative to bring as many weapons as possible into the public sphere.

The bill passed the House by the amazing margin of 65-36. Yes, 65 Oklahoma adults in positions of power actually voted to turn our college classrooms into militia fortresses despite the nearly unanimous opposition to the measure by college educators. This is simply mind boggling. What does this mean in a larger sense about how we educate our students here and who controls basic classroom protocols and procedures? Should the NRA be in charge of OU or David Boren? I vote for Boren.

House Bill 2211, sponsored by the world famous Republican hero Kern, is supposedly a measure to prevent discrimination against expressing religious viewpoints at school. But the real point of the bill, which the House passed by a staggering 71-25 margin, seems to be to bring Christian fundamentalism into classrooms and especially science classrooms. Under the bill’s language, for example, a teacher could not penalize a student for expressing a religious view. What if a student refused to write a paper related to evolution theory or the scientific method? What if a student demanded to only deal with creationist ideas about the world? Would the teacher back down? What if a student challenged a teacher in the classroom and disrupted a class based on their religious beliefs? What if a student used a religious argument that was not applicable to a classroom or homework assignment? Who is to determine whether a religious argument is applicable to an assignment? A legislative committee headed by Kern herself perhaps?

It is not difficult to argue that Kern, the famous Oklahoma gay hater and religious extremist, is trying to turn our public classrooms into enclaves of Christian fundamentalism. (What rational person could see it otherwise given Kern’s religious statements in the past?) She and her fellow fundamentalist crusaders will do it one small step at a time unless she is defeated in the next election. Fortunately, Democrat Ron Marlett has announced he will run against Kern, and Marlett is sure to receive much support, but this bill is pending now. It needs to be defeated by the Senate or removed from consideration.

So far the legislative action on these two bills tells the world Oklahoma is a place in which a large portion of the leadership wants to arm its students for the classroom and prevent teachers from presenting basic scientific principles. This potential dark, backwards place will not be a good place to raise children or get an education no matter what the chamber of commerce flaks or The Daily Oklahoman editorial writers say.

A Time When Wrong Is Right

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(Click here to view a short video we put together here at Okie Funk about the Iraq occupation. Be sure to turn up the speakers.) blogger and author Glenn Greenwald is writing the best media criticism in the nation right now.

One of his latest posts deals with an important issue raised by many bloggers and political activists in the past several years. (Okie Funk has raised this point, too.) Essentially, Greenwald’s argument is this: Those people who were 100 percent right about the Iraq occupation and opposed it from the beginning continue to be marginalized by mainstream media outlets.

I would go further to say there remains an institutionalized bigotry and bias—at least in my part of the world—targeting people who were right about the most important foreign policy event in a generation. (Greenwald may or may not agree with this.) The people who were wrong about weapons of mass destruction, who predicted foolishly the Iraq war would be a cakewalk, cost little money and secure democracy in the Middle East, remain ensconced in power in public and private institutions. They work against people who were right about all these points. This institutionalized bigotry is subtle, for sure, but it exists. Some people have suffered in their jobs and in their private lives because they were right. They continue to suffer.

Here is the prevailing premise of the bigotry: If you were wrong about Iraq, then that is okay. You are a good conservative or so-called “liberal hawk,” who deserves to be rewarded with leadership positions, raises, promotions and all the spoils of institutionalized prestige and success. (This is a view promoted by media outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.) If you were right, you are a leftist kook who needs to go sit in the corner and shut up. In this way, using this illogic, the right-wing continues to triumph and dominate almost every sector of American life. The Iraq occupation is truly the ur-event that defines how the right-wing has managed to shift the political discourse so far to the right, that even right and wrong, truth and lying, are no longer operative or even debated in any meaningful sense.

This may sound like sour grapes coming from someone who publicly opposed the war from the beginning, but the philosophical and political implications here are enormous, and they deserve reconsideration as the American military death toll in Iraq climbs to 4,000 and the occupation extends into its sixth year. Greenwald compares the illogical premise in the previous paragraph to someone using a surgeon that has repeatedly botched your operations. Why would you continue to use a surgeon who makes mistakes and causes you harm? Yet that is what mainstream media outlets do, that is what most public institutions continue to do. They continue to rely on and reward people who were completely wrong, whose shallow ideology has miserably failed this country. Columnist William Kristol, a new columnist at The New York Times, is one of these people.

Do you personally know someone in a position of leadership—political or otherwise—who supported the Iraq invasion and was wrong about how easy it would be to occupy the country? Have they recanted, apologized, spoke out? No. Then that person should not be in that particular position of leadership. Their judgment cannot and should not be trusted on any issue.

What is at stake here is nothing less than the basic structures of our democracy. Certainly, pure democracy is not necessarily dependent on right or wrong. Misguided, bigoted people can and do vote to reward “wrong,” but a long-term, systematic embrace of the illogical as is the case with the Iraq occupation can only result in governmental tyranny and the permanent displacement of the truth-seeking individual. This has already happened to some extent in our country. It continues to happen.

The most recent lie, for example, of Imperial President George Bush, the worst president in American history, is that the so-called “surge” is working. But the bombings continue in Iraq, Americans continue to lose their lives (more American soldiers died in 2007 than in any other year of the war), Iraq’s political systems remain impotent and vulnerable and the American treasury will be plundered for at least $3 trillion. Every day brings more news of the continuing carnage, but it does not fit the current Bush spin cycle. So it is all relegated to the back pages, and then the right-wing pundits—some like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times actually have the gall to define themselves as centrists or moderates—pronounce that everything, really, everything is okay in Iraq.

Meanwhile, our country flounders in an economic morass created by the very same people who were wrong about Iraq. But do not count on the country’s basic institutions to make this connection and replace their leadership.

Until this country and its basic public and private institutions reward those people who were right about Iraq, the country will continue its downward spiral. Do not count on American mainstream media outlets to cover in any depth this spiral. Do not count on the country’s most basic institutions to correct the Big Error. They are the main reason this country is in distress in the first place.

As Ford Madox Ford writes in his novel The Good Soldier, “It is all a darkness.”

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