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William Kellough: Diversion from prison offers opportunity on many levels

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Correction: This column initially included incorrect information concerning the work status of a man identified as Justin. The column has been corrected.

Ten years ago, a program was created for Tulsa County women whose drug addictions and trauma all but guaranteed long prison sentences. Women in Recovery provided a unique and powerful path for prison avoidance and has helped salvage hundreds of lives. Since then, prison “diversion” has gone from being an experiment in smart criminal justice to an accepted and proven alternative.

Now there is a similar program in its infancy for men. It is called the 1st Step Male Diversion Program.

A diversion program presupposes that certain defendants, charged with nonviolent but serious felonies, can be rehabilitated in the community with longer lasting prospects for success. At least two things happen to people convicted of a felony and incarcerated for addiction behavior and the property crimes associated with them. Both of them are bad. Prison becomes a perfect schoolroom to reinforce criminal behavior and addiction, and the felony conviction itself becomes a scarlet letter, destroying opportunity for meaningful work and advancement in life after prison.

Women in Recovery and 1st Step require accountability and discipline from participants. In return, they receive professional counseling, mentoring, safe and secure housing, job training, and the benefit of associating with people who care about them and are able to use that care and compassion to effect positive change.

Consider Miguel and Chris. These men in their mid-20s were looking at extended prison sentences. Their crimes were all drug-related due to habituation and addiction. Recently, they were among the first three men to graduate from the 1st Step Program. They have steady employment, have been drug-free for over a year and are on their way to productive lives. Miguel is a tire repair technician; Chris is a forklift operator. 

The cost of putting these men through the 1st Step program, about $16,000 per man, should be compared to the $21,000 average annual cost for incarceration in Oklahoma. The emphasis is on annual. Life sentences equate to 38 years.

A combined 86 years in prison for the first three men to graduate from 1st Step would have cost the state over $1.8 million. Instead they have been, and will continue to be, citizens and taxpayers. And the eventual expungement of their records will ensure that they are able to continue working, supporting their families, raising their kids and contributing in so many intangible ways to our community.

Granted, plea bargaining and good-time credits would have likely resulted in much less than the maximum prison time. But assume that they received only 20 percent of those maximum sentences. The cost would still be a staggering $360,000! Is that a useful expenditure of tax money?

From a simple economic perspective, diversion programs make sense. Criminal justice is usually discussed in terms of the humanitarian and moral consequences of harsh and mindless incarceration. There is nothing wrong with that approach. But to those who look at human conduct from a more pragmatic viewpoint, the logic of spending public money where it produces the greatest good becomes obvious.

Consequently, in this legislative session, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have endorsed at least two bills to support diversion programs: Senate Bill 210, which passed the Senate 46-1, and House Bill 1416, which passed the House 80-7.

SB 210 provides for reimbursement to diversion programs based on success. In other words, for men and women who succeed and stay employed and crime-free, the state will pay the programs, which succeeded in contributing to these outcomes, the equivalent cost of their treatment and education. HB 1416 would create a revolving fund from receipt of $1 a day for each inmate in a private prison to be used to pay for a variety of community-based diversion and treatment alternatives including Drug Court, Mental Health Court, Veterans Court and programs like Women in Recovery and 1st Step.

Both bills, if passed and approved by the governor, will provide meaningful funding for programs that work immeasurably better than simply warehousing people whose conduct and behavior are the product of mental health problems, physical addiction, lack of education, job skills and motivation but not evil motive.

Young men like Miguel and Chris deserve a chance. It has been said many times but is worth repeating: We should reserve prison space for those we fear and not for those whose behavior we dislike.

William Kellough is a Tulsa attorney and former Tulsa County district judge. He is board president of 1st Step Male Diversion Program Inc. and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by board members appear in this space most weeks.


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