Better laws, less punishment, more freedom – from Cuba to Oklahoma

1. United States

Oklahoma has reduced its prison population by 21% over the last five years. Through a series of legislative reforms and voter initiatives, Oklahoma eliminated prison time for some low-level drug and property offenses, and reduced the length of sentences for other crimes.

A community-led campaign called Project Commutation has helped people with long sentences have them commuted. And a significant number of incarcerated people were released during the pandemic.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

In our progress roundup, government and citizen objectives aligned and voters signaled approval for a family code that includes same-sex marriage in Cuba, and sending fewer people to prison in Oklahoma.

In 2016, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate in the country. Crime had been falling in the state, but the prison population exploded in large part because of the number of crimes classified as felonies. Republican-led reforms have helped the prison population drop from 28,342 in January 2017 to 22,441 in May 2022.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File
Most people at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma, were convicted of violent crimes. But Oklahoma has reduced low-level incarcerations.

The state still has the third-highest imprisonment rate in the country; people sentenced in Oklahoma spend about twice as long in prison for larceny and fraud, and more than twice as long in prison for some drug convictions.


2. Cuba

Cubans voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage and civil unions were legalized as part of a referendum that included a raft of other social and family-related measures. The new family code encourages men and women to split household and domestic duties, condemns domestic violence, and stipulates rights and protections for women, children, and older people. Gay couples are allowed to adopt children, and surrogate pregnancy is also legal.

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
In Havana, students guard ballot box stations on Sept. 25, 2022, for the vote on the new family code.

The change marks a stark turnaround for the island, where gay men were persecuted and sent to forced labor camps for “reeducation” in the 1960s and ’70s. The vote was roughly 66% in favor, 33% against. Religious and social conservatives encouraged people to vote no, as did some activists opposed to the government in principle.

Sources: The Washington Post, The Guardian, Gaceta Oficial de la República de Cuba

3. Europe

European companies are moving toward decarbonization of heavy industry, the most difficult target in achieving net-zero emissions. In aiming for the first large-scale green steel plant by 2025 or 2030, Sweden’s H2 Green Steel is building a $4 billion mill to be powered by green hydrogen rather than coal or natural gas. The mill is one of about 70 European projects dedicated to reducing emissions in the metals, chemicals, and cement industries, according to consulting group Material Economics.

What remains to be seen is if these industrial projects can be scaled up. But projects in Europe indicate that players in the industry – from established chemicals giant BASF to nimbler chemical and cement startups in Ireland and France – are moving toward green solutions. H2 Green Steel has already signed orders for 1.5 million metric tons of hydrogen-produced steel from major companies, including BMW.

Sources: The Economist, Brookings Institution, World Economic Forum

4. Republic of Congo

The Republic of Congo has set aside its first protected marine reserves. The reserves cover 4,330 square kilometers (1,671 square miles), which is 12% of its exclusive economic zone, or the waters off its coast that it has the sole right to exploit. The area set aside for conservation includes nesting grounds for leatherback turtles, and a migrating and breeding habitat for Atlantic humpback whales, and is home to more than 40 species of sharks and rays.

The reserves are meant to help curb industrial-scale fishing while allowing for small-scale fishers to continue plying the waters. Fishers “are sometimes afraid to go fishing at sea because they fear encountering large boats, especially at night,” said Martin Safou, a coastal village chief. Overfishing and illegal fishing have been threats not just to the Republic of Congo’s biodiversity, but also to the livelihoods of artisanal fishers.
Source: Wildlife Conservation Society

5. Sri Lanka

The world’s largest shipping line has changed one of its routes to make waters safer for whales. Ships with Mediterranean Shipping Co. (MSC) are traveling 15 nautical miles south of their old route in order to better avoid crashing into northern Indian Ocean blue whales, which are endangered. The whales – the world’s largest living creatures – congregate off the southern tip of the island nation year-round, in an area that many ships pass through.

Mark Conlin/VWPics/AP/File
Blue whales will have more freedom from ships around Sri Lanka after rerouting by one large shipping company.

Conservationists and researchers had warned that the route – which remains in use by other ships – was dangerous for the whales. “Rerouting is the key hope to turn the tide for blue whales off Sri Lanka,” said Nicolas Entrup, director of international relations at OceanCare, one of the nonprofits that approached MSC about changing its route. Advocates hope that MSC’s decision will spur other companies to shift their shipping routes. Surveys indicate the change could reduce the risk of a ship-whale collision by 95%.  
Sources: Insider, International Fund for Animal Welfare

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