After reading this letter, please take a moment to write your city council representative (a map of the OKC City Council wards can be found at this link). And if you are lucky enough to live in ward 2, please write Councilman Ed Shadid (ward2(at)okc.gov)and thank him for not co-sponsoring this terrible law.
Dear Mayor Mick Cornett (firstname.lastname@example.org),
Dear Ward 1 Councilman James Greiner (email@example.com),
Dear Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee (firstname.lastname@example.org),
Dear Ward 4 Councilman Pete White (email@example.com),
Dear Ward 5 Councilman David Greenwell (firstname.lastname@example.org),
Dear Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer (email@example.com),
Dear Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis (firstname.lastname@example.org),
Dear Ward 8 Councilman Mark Stonecipher (email@example.com),
I am an Oklahoma City resident and regular voter in city council and mayoral elections.
I just read in the newspaper (The Oklahoman: Oklahoma City councilwoman introduces law on panhandling)that each of you have cosponsored an ordinance that would criminalize panhandling in the city of Oklahoma City, punishable by a fine of $500. I strongly oppose this ordinance.
In this letter I want to explain, from my perspective as an attorney and as a minister, why you withdraw your co-sponsorship of this ordinance.
First, wearing my attorney hat — I work part-time as an attorney, often in a criminal defense context in both Oklahoma County and OKC municipal courts and have seen first hand what often happens when poor people are charged with minor offenses. Defendants in these contexts are stuck with a terrible set of choices:
- Some are able to scrape together the money to make bond but then not have enough money to pay an attorney Others stay in jail and get their court-appointed public defender but end up sitting in jail for a long time to have their day in court. The lucky few win despite these long-shot odds but most never really have a fair shot at justice.
- Others plead guilty (since most are not represented by counsel, they often take a foolish naked plea) and then are stuck in an endless cycle of trying to make payments on court fines and probation costs. When down the road they stumble and are not able to make a payment, a bench warrant goes out and the cycle continues.
What is the end result of all of this? The taxpayers end up paying for most of it, since the fines often end up not being paid but the costs of incarceration and courts still are incurred. And as for the defendant, what about them? Does a criminal conviction help them in any way? No. It makes it harder for them to find future employment and better themselves.
This ordinance is a short-sighted approach to real problem. By imposing massive fines on the panhandlers, you are pushing them further into the mire of our rotten system. I agree that panhandling is not a good way to alleviate the problem of poverty but there are better ways to deal with this issue. I encourage you to actually take some time and visit with the many churches and organizations in this city who are working with our homeless population, or better yet why don’t you take a walk down the street from City Hall and talk to some of the homeless citizens of our city? They might have some good thoughts for you about not only this ordinance but all of the other ways that our city government pushes the poor down rather than helping them out.
OK, let me move on to discussing this with my minister hat on. Besides being an attorney, I also work part-time as the Minister of Peace and Social Justice of Joy Mennonite Church (we meet at 504 NE 16th St, just south of the state capitol).
I understand that most of you are church members and/or have publicly identified yourselves as Christians (see
Cornett, Greiner, McAtee, White, Greenwell, Pettis, and Stonecipher), so I think it is relevant for most of you to share scripture text that tells the teachings of Jesus on the current situation.
Luke 6:20-26 (NRSV):
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
In light of this text, here are some questions for each of you…
Who is Jesus blessing, the rich or the poor?
Who is Jesus cursing, the rich or the poor?
Whose side is Jesus on? the rich or the poor?
And whose side is Jesus on today? How would Jesus answer the troubling problem of homelessness? Would he impose $500 fines and even jail time on those who have no resources or would he find a better way?
I hope and pray that you reconsider your decision to co-sponsor this bill, but I will be adding some action to my prayers by speaking to my congregation and our friends about the evils of this proposed ordinance.
Please do the right thing. If you want to alleviate the pain of homelessness, fix it with proactive help and not fines and jail time.
James M. Branum