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Local ACLU director lays out grim stats at Day at the Legislature event

Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report
ACLU Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – On March 6th, Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union gave a presentation at the Oklahoma Conference of Churches annual Day at the Legislature.

Kiesel, who is an attorney and was formerly a Democratic legislator in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, spoke in St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Oklahoma City and told of how the state of Oklahoma currently incarcerates too many of its citizens for drug possession and other offenses.

The ACLU director also noted that are between 50 and 60 prisoners in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections who are serving life terms without the possibility of parole for drug possession who were in possession of narcotics for their personal use. He further cited statistics that show that at least 17 percent of people who enter the state’s prison have been sentenced there for drug possession and many others for small property crimes.

Oklahoma is also number one in the nation in the incarceration of women.

Kiesel asserted that many people who are being placed on probation in the state’s courts are being set up for failure since they are often saddled with the obligation to pay to pay costs assessed on them for probation fees to the local district attorney’s office that does not provide them any supervision or assistance for those fees and also makes them pay for drug counseling services that not all of them really need.

Kiesel pointed out that many users of controlled dangerous substances are doing so for recreational purposes, and analogized them to the people who enjoy drinking beer while attending Oklahoma City Thunder basketball games, and said that not all of them should be subject to the regimen of drug testing and counseling that is routinely imposed on all drug defendants.

When those individuals are unable to pay those fees they are often returned to prison. Kiesel also praised former Oklahoma House of Representatives Speaker Kris Steele for his efforts to bring greater compassion and realism into Oklahoma’s drug laws.

The fees assessed on those defendants has in recent years became the primary funding source for the state’s district attorneys and county sheriffs, and their powerful lobby works to ensure that that system remains in place despite the protests it has received from many Oklahomans, including church groups.

The approval of State Questions 780 and 781 served to lessen the punishments in place for drug and other offenses, and Kiesel detailed how efforts are being made in the Oklahoma legislature to lessen their effects through House Bill 1482. He warned his listeners that much of the information being set forth in support of that proposed legislation are simply not true, and distributed a sheet that documented some of the false statements now being made about those voter approved measures.

Drug manufacturing and or distribution in school zones was not changed by those enactment from a felony to a misdemeanor and they are still felonies. Nor did they do away with the state’s drug courts as some supporters of House Bill 1482 maintain, and those tribunals remain in place throughout the state.

Nor was the complete language of State Question 780 withheld from the public, its entire content was available on the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s website for 10 months before the voters enacted it into law.

The ACLU director pointed out in his concluding remarks that the fees assessed through the criminal justice system have allowed the Oklahoma County Sheriff to purchase military style vehicles that are put on display in civic parades, but said that those funds would have been better spent improving the abysmal conditions that prisoners face at the Oklahoma County Jail.

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Bill O'Brien

Bill O'Brien is an attorney based in Oklahoma City.

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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