A Republican Crusader Takes on Oklahoma’s Prison Machine

Steele grew up in a strict Baptist community. He was once berated by his pastor for dancing. He grew up to be a Baptist pastor himself before turning to the Methodist church in search of a denomination that he believed focused less on throttling human desire and more on helping the needy. It was a “paradigm shift,” he says. “The emphasis was more on the dos. Like, go out and and do good. Go out and help somebody.” When he began hearing the stories of felons, whose lives were often shaped by heartache and hopelessness (not coincidentally, Oklahoma also leads the country in childhood trauma), Steele felt elements of his Methodist faith—grace, love, compassion—“become more real than they ever had been.” And there was something else. He realized that a lot of the felons felt a way he has felt much of his life: shunned.

When Steele was 6 years old, another child playing with a pellet gun shot him in the head at point-blank range. The pellet passed through Steele’s brain, and he lay in a coma for 10 days while doctors told his parents he was going to die. He recovered, but he was not the same. To this day, Steele swings his left leg forward from his hip when he walks. His left arm and hand, though usable, curl from his elbow and his fingers often ball into a fist. Kids mocked him for his disability throughout his childhood. The result was another change to Steele—this one not physical. “I was able to identify with people who may be excluded or ridiculed or left out or stereotyped.”

This attitude, which he calls part of his “faith journey,” began to shape the way he saw larger social problems. “I think our communities are strongest when everyone is allowed to contribute to the greater good,” he says. “I think that sense of inclusion, at least in part, if I’m being 100 percent honest, stems back to some early childhood experiences.”

By 2012, his last year in office, Steele had convinced others that the incarceration crisis was not only a fiscal issue, but a humanitarian one. A bipartisan group coalesced that included business leaders, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and the powerful district attorney who presides over Oklahoma City, a Democrat, David Prater. Together they ushered through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative authored by Steele, which was intended to preserve public safety while reducing costs by diverting nonviolent offenders to probation.

But the response from the right wing, and the law-and-order lobby, was outrage. Many district attorneys opposed the idea. The Sooner Tea Party chided the bill as “soft on crime,” and Fallin was up for reelection. Steele, who was a lame duck, could do little to ensure funding and implementation. Steele realized that while he had gotten the votes, he hadn’t gotten much conviction behind them. Late that summer, key players from Fallin’s office didn’t show for implementation meetings. Emails obtained by the local press showed some staffers worried that the bill aligned them with Democrats. Early the next year, Fallins’ general counsel announced that Oklahoma would reject the necessary federal assistance for the program. He declared it “time we cut our losses.”

In protest, Steele and Prater resigned from the implementation group. Steele left office clearly feeling there was unfinished business. Other than the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, he had passed only one reform measure: a pilot program to offer mental health and addiction services to pregnant women and mothers as a way to keep them out of prison.

Once he left office, his frustration with the Legislature convinced him to take criminal-justice reform directly to voters. His coalition of activists and business leaders crafted State Question 780, which downgraded to misdemeanors low-level drug possession and property crimes. District attorneys, once again, became the leading opponents. Steve Kunzweiler, the district attorney who represents Tulsa County, argued addicts would have less reason to seek treatment if their charges were lighter, and pressed the case that it reduced a prosecutor’s leverage in more serious cases. The opponents’ message failed to resonate with the public, and in November 2016, in a major victory for reformers—and a black eye for the people elected to pass laws—voters easily passed the initiative with 58 percent of the vote.

But soon after, the Legislature introduced a number of bills to undermine the law voters had just passed. One new proposal included creating felony zones around schools and churches, which would have created large swaths of land where the new law didn’t apply. Steele recognized that simply appealing to the public wasn’t enough: He would have to become as effective a lobbying force as the district attorneys. So he created a lobbying organization of his own, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, to fight the proposed bills and protect the intent of SQ 780. “We were able to say, ‘Time out. Distribution is still a felony conviction,’” Steele says. “All the safeguards to protect children are still there. Addiction doesn’t stop being an addiction based on location.” Steele and his team, at least temporarily, managed to hold off the encroaching bills.

The wind seemed to be blowing their way. In 2018, Republican businessman Kevin Stitt gained traction with voters in his bid for governor in part because he supported more criminal-justice reform. His win gave cause for hope, and at the start of 2019, pro-reform legislators—both Republicans and Democrats—introduced a raft of criminal-justice bills. The most transformative was bail reform, long advocated by Steele and introduced by Republican ally Rep. Chris Kannady. It would end up testing legislators’ commitment to reform.