Sen. George Young pursues criminal justice reform: ‘The capitalist backbone of this country was slavery’Read Now
Story by Bailey Walker
Photo courtesy of George Young
Oklahoma is found at the bottom of many lists, but incarceration is one list the state tops. The state of Oklahoma surpassed Louisiana as the top incarcerator by rate in the nation, and with the U.S. as the top incarcerator of the world, the state of Oklahoma holds the title of incarceration capital of the world. The Oklahoma Policy Institute reported the United Kingdom has an incarceration rate of 139 per 100,000 people, Canada 114, the United States 698 and Oklahoma 1,079.
Oklahoma Sen. George Young, a Democrat, served two terms as a House representative and recently started a term as state senator. Young focuses largely on racial and criminal justice reform, as he has introduced bills to prevent incarceration for failing to pay court fees, requiring crisis intervention training among police and requiring stated reasons on record for parole denial. Young represented House District 99 from 2014 to 2018, which according to census data in 2010, was composed of 29 percent of white people, 62 percent of black people, and 10 percent Hispanic people.
“My district is predominantly African American, so I have to come from the position of those people I represent,” Young said. “Even if I didn’t I would feel the same way I feel about [criminal justice].”
Young also criticized current immigration narratives, describing immigration as something that built this country and described current institutional practices.
“We can’t do like we used to do and just flat out make them slaves,” said Young, “we’re enslaving them in other ways by preventing them from being able to enjoy what this country was founded on and that is freedom.”
Young contradicts what may be a popular narrative in immigration policy.
“We ‘ought not be building walls, we ‘ought to be building doors and invite folk in and when they sit down ask ‘how, what, why?’ and then go from there instead of building walls to keep folk out,” Young said.
Young works more broadly than his minority constituents, as his work would affect everyone.
“For me, if you’re a citizen of Oklahoma, I work for you,” Young said. “I ran in Senate District 48, but I never took an oath to Senate District 48 I took an oath to the state of Oklahoma and with that I have to deal with every person who’s in the State of Oklahoma, those are my constituents.”
This is shown perhaps most prominently in SB 102. Young made a proposal to increase Oklahoma’s minimum wage to $10.50, which would place Oklahoma in a more competitive position with Arkansas at $9.25, Colorado at $11.10 and Missouri, which passed a ballot measure to adjust the minimum wage to the cost of living in 2018.
Young said he loves America and that he is not going anywhere else, and so he criticizes what he sees wrong with the country’s past and present.
“The capitalistic backbone of this country was slavery,” Young said. “If it wasn’t for cotton and tobacco in the South, with free labor, you would not have America.”
Young recognized ongoing racial disparities in Oklahoma, especially the disproportionate incarceration of minorities and historic economic disadvantages. These two issues, incarceration and poverty, have been linked by many analysts, including the Vera Institute report regarding the Oklahoma County Jail. Poverty is an indicator of incarceration and was also reiterated by Kris Steele, former Oklahoma Republican Representative and Executive Director of the Education and Employment Ministry.
“Capitalism is not fair. And on top of that, you had laws that prevented people of color from benefiting from that capitalistic system,” Young said.
Poverty data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in combination with census population data showed that in 2017, 8.58 percent of Oklahoma’s white population lived in poverty, while 20 percent of Oklahoma’s black population lived in poverty. Similarly, census data compared with Prison Policy Initiative data shows 74.3 percent of the state population is white and 7.8 percent is black, but 49 percent of the incarcerated population is white while 26 percent is black. It is data like this that Young ties to capitalism and institutionalized racism.
“You had banks that refused to loan us money, the Federal Housing Authority would not loan to African Americans because they wanted them to live in certain areas, and when they did the county governments would devalue their properties so we could not accumulate wealth from the one thing that most folk in America accumulate wealth from and that is owning a home,” Young said.
A key policy Young has suggested is the racial impact statement, a report which would be required to be produced for future legislation.
“Iowa and New Jersey are two places that have passed similar measures,” Damion Shade, the criminal justice policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said. “This data process is essentially like a fiscal impact statement but focuses on the impact of criminal justice bills in different communities.”
Shade explained this process helped alter legislation in Iowa in line with the impact report’s findings.
“Arkansas hasn’t adopted legislation yet, but a trial study last year has also helped reshape some laws for the better,” Shade said.
Though Young’s bill wasn’t brought up for a vote, another measure by Rep. Brian Hill and co-authored by Rep. Scott Fetgatter is moving along the legislative process.
HB 1855 summary prepared by Marcia Johnson reads, “The CS for HB 1855 authorizes the Legislative Service Bureau to enter into a contract with a qualified person or entity to promulgate community impact statements on certain criminal justice legislation. The measure also prescribes specific legislative processes for the introduction, consideration and possible passage of criminal justice legislation.”
Bail reform legislation was also introduced with SB 252 authored by Sen. Roger Thompson and Sen. Chris Kannady.
According to the summary prepared by Kalen Taylor, “The measure also requires judges to release a person following an appearance in court unless the judge makes certain findings defined by the measure. A person must be taken without unnecessary delay before the most accessible magistrate in that county for an initial appearance and charged with a crime within forty-eight hours of the arrest. Magistrates must set a reasonable bail for persons not released by the court. The measure strikes language authorizing the court to require a person so released by the court to wear an electronic monitoring device.”
Young said the democratic process does not start or stop at voting for candidates, he explained that community activism and interacting with lawmakers are necessary components to the democratic process.
“I think people have to get involved, and if we don’t get people involved we’re not going to be successful in changing what we see now as ill thought out, ill developed statutes and laws,” Young said.