Lawmakers, Governor Continue To Wrestle With Criminal Justice Reform Issues

by Scott Carter

OKLAHOMA CITY –Back in the 90s, the Oklahoma Legislature decided to get tough on crime.

Lawmakers passed longer sentences and ‘three strikes and you’re out’ laws. They placed tighter sentencing restrictions on judges and juries. They increased the use of the death penalty and shot down an effort to streamline and reform the state’s criminal code.

While this was going on, a group of conservative business leaders – upset over a recent tax increase to fund House Bill 1017, an education reform bill – launched State Question 640, a crusade to limit the legislature’s ability to raise taxes.

Then things turned ugly.

The legislature’s new, harsher laws put more non-violent offenders in prison. Truth in sentencing changes kept those prisoners incarcerated for longer periods of time. Increased fines and fees and felony records made it harder for many released from prison to return to productive careers.

Those policies, and the anti-tax effort sparked by State Question 640, limited the state’s ability to properly fund the growing prison population. It was long before the Department of Corrections was pushed the breaking point.

And Oklahoma’s prison population exploded.

Now, decades later, the Sooner State has passed Louisiana for title of “world’s prison capital”— that is, it locks up a higher proportion of its residents than any other state or country, a story in Mother Jones magazine noted. Those numbers, in addition to a botched execution in 2014, brought the state’s corrections policy under harsh scrutiny.

At the same time the cost for Oklahoma’s war on crime continued to increase.

According to a 2015 study by the Vera Project, Oklahoma’s prison population was 27,369 in 2015, with an average cost of $16,497 per inmate. Those costs, projections from the Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs show, are expected to grow by 25 percent over the next decade, eventually reaching more than $2 billion.

A shift in voter attitudes headline both moral and financial costs of the state’s corrections policy. That change and the voter approval of a medical marijuana initiative forced lawmakers – facing huge prison population numbers and limited state revenue – to rethink their position.

Sparked by the bipartisan group, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, many people decided that less is more. Instead of the tough on crime approach, Oklahomans reversed their earlier position and passed two state questions in 2016 which could, over time, reduce the state’s prison population.

At the core of both questions was a policy that changed many non-violent drug felonies and other property crimes to misdemeanors. This year, the state’s new Republican Governor, Kevin Stitt, endorsed the effort in his state of the state speech.

“We are number one in the nation for incarceration,” Stitt said in February. “To move the needle, it will require us to change the way we see the person who is in a cycle of incarceration for non-violent crimes.” 

In his budget request Stitt called for additional funding for several criminal justice reform projects including $1.5 million to Women in Recovery, a public-private partnership to help women identify the roots of their addictions and develop life skills and $10 million to the County Community Safety Investment Fund, a criminal justice reform initiative the people of Oklahoma approved with SQ 781.

Oklahoma legislators, following the governor’s lead, proposed several additional bills to push the reform effort forward, including House Bill 1269, would apply State Question 780 retroactively and reclassify low-level drug and property offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor.

That bill, its authors said, provides post-conviction relief to Oklahomans whose convictions took place prior to State Question 780 passing but would have been affected had SQ780 been in place.

 “We have Oklahomans that are labeled as felons, and their crimes would be legal or a much lesser crime today. These folks are disenfranchised, and their families are suffering. This legislation seeks to heal these wounds and continue Oklahoma down the road of responsible criminal justice reform,” the bill’s author, Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, said.

House Majority Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, who worked with Dunnington on the legislation, said the bill was a chance to come together and do what is best for Oklahoma. “The people of Oklahoma have spoken loud and clear on the issue of criminal justice reform,” Echols said. “This bill will be a great step in that direction.”

Two other bills, House Bills 2273 and 2218, would have streamline the criminal justice system. Both bills would reduce the likelihood of ex-inmates returning to prison for technical violations such as the inability to secure a job, housing or missing a court-ordered fine or fee payment. House Bill 2009 would reduce the sentences of repeat nonviolent offenders with no history of violent or sexual offenses. 

And another measure, House Bill 1373, known as the “Fresh Start Act,” would allow people with felonies on their records the opportunity to still seek occupational licensing for certain professions as long as the crimes do not substantially relate to the practice of the occupation.

That’s bill’s author, Rep. Zach Taylor, R-Seminole, said the measure ties occupational licensure reform and criminal justice reform together.

 “This bill gives those non-violent offenders hope that if they meet the qualifications for an occupational license, they will have the opportunity to make a good wage and improve their lives and not be disqualified because of arbitrary language in the law,” Taylor said.

With the support of the governor and the legislative leadership, criminal justice reform gained traction during the 2019 legislative session.

But so far, the effort has met with limited success.

While several House and Senate bills – part of a massive criminal justice reform package – were considered this year by the legislature, few of those measure made it to the governor’s desk.

In fact, of the five bills, only House Bill 1259 and 1373 were signed by Stitt. The three other bills, HB 2009, 2273 and 2218, didn’t make it out of the Senate.

Stitt said he was pleased that changes were being made.

“I believe Oklahomans agreed with me that if it would be considered a misdemeanor today for a non-violent drug crime, then we needed to get those people out of prison,” Stitt said in May.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, said the fact that nearly 1,000 Oklahomans will be released from prison early because of HB 1269 “was a profound victory for justice reform” in the state.

But the ‘bureaucratic process’ of HB 1269 leaves more than 60,000 Oklahomans outside prison with a costly and prohibitive expungement process, Damion Shade, an analyst for the organization wrote.

“House 1269 does nothing to address problems like sentence enhancements,” Shade wrote. “Because of these enhancements, numerous Oklahomans are serving longer prison sentences than they would have served without a prior drug possession felony. Disparities like these contribute to Oklahoma’s world-leading incarceration rate.”

Still, even with the positive change, he said, more work remains.

“House 1269 is a positive first step,” Shade wrote. “But lawmakers should address the issues left unresolved by this legislation if they hope to truly alter the direction of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis.”

Those issues could get another look this fall.

State lawmakers are expected to again review several criminal justice reform policies during the legislative interim.

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