With Weeks Left In Legislative Session, Governor Stitt Proposes New Criminal Justice Reform Plan

May 5, 2019

Criminal justice measures moving through the legislative process got a boost this week as Gov. Kevin Stitt announced a new initiative Wednesday focused on giving offenders second chances.

  • House Bill 1373 would help people convicted of nonviolent felonies get occupational licenses for careers that currently bar felons such as a registered nurse as long as their crime is not substantially related to the job.
     
  • Senate Bill 616 would take away prisoners’ ability to say ‘no’ to a parole hearing. It’s estimated that two out of three Oklahoma inmates currently opt out of parole hearings, which officials say contributes to overcrowding. The proposed legislation would help prisoners try to earn parole after previously being denied and would discourage punishing parolees who break the conditions of their release by sending them back to prison.
     
  • Stitt is also calling for changes to House Bill 1269 which would reduce felony prison sentences for people convicted of drug possession and some property crimes to misdemeanors. The bill would give the benefits of State Question 780 — a popular 2016 voter initiative — to people convicted before the measure took effect. Stitt wants lawmakers to approve an expedited commutation and expungement process for those prisoners that would be overseen by the Pardon and Parole Board.

In addition the governor wants to change the way district attorneys and courts are funded. Currently, criminal defendants’ fines and fees to fund much of the criminal justice system. Stitt also wants to spend an additional $10 million on treatment and education programs that steer people away from prison.

A number of community leaders and reform advocates praised Stitt’s proposals, but some, including Democratic lawmakers, said much more action is needed.

Nicole McAffee, the smart justice campaign manager for the ACLU of Oklahoma suggested the governor’s proposal was “business as usual.”

McAffee criticized the proposal for not mentioning several reform bills already in the legislative process that would soften sentencing laws, loosen restrictions on parole eligibility, adjust potential sanctions and financial burdens for people on probation, revise required jury instructions and require courts offer people arrested for most nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors affordable bail terms.

She also criticized Gov. Stitt’s proposal to write a commutation process into the State Question 780 retroactivity bill. A commutation process could be used to determine which prisoners should have their sentences reduced. Earlier in the session, a state prosecutor suggested to StateImpact the governor should authorize a commutation process through executive order instead of passing the retroactivity bill.

McAffee said the governor’s suggestion has not been debated publicly or in the Legislature and would replace a sentence modification plan negotiated earlier in the session.

Some of the reform measures would be added to bills currently in the legislative process, but some of them are new proposals. This presents a timing challenge for lawmakers because the legislative session is scheduled to end May 31.