Oklahoma Legislators Leave Criminal Justice Reform Bills On The Table As Prison Population Grows
Multiple polls show the majority of Oklahoma voters support criminal justice reforms.
Survey data commissioned by Oklahoma Public Radio stations for the Oklahoma Engaged project also suggest a majority of voters believe the state’s sentencing laws need to be reworked.
Oklahoma is now the number one incarcerator in the country, but only one bill targeting prison population control reached the governor’s desk this session.
When the legislative session began in February, hopes were high that this was the year significant reforms would advance, but the most far-reaching criminal justice reform bill lawmakers approved will have an uncertain effect on the state’s prison population.
The bill that passed
House Bill 1269 builds on a 2016 voter initiative that made drug possession and some property crimes misdemeanors. People sentenced to prison for those crimes before voters changed the law can apply to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board for a commuted sentence. People already released can apply to have their convictions expunged. The law goes into effect in November.
It’s unclear how many people would be affected. Oklahoma Department of Corrections data from January suggested more than 2,000 people would qualify to apply for shorter sentences and nearly 1,000 would qualify for early release.
However, each month more of the prisoners convicted for the affected crimes finish serving their sentences and are released. Plus, legislators say the Department of Corrections data is unreliable.
Because of political infighting, House Bill 1269 almost didn’t receive a vote in the Senate. Gov. Kevin Stitt was forced to intervene.
“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.
The governor says he called the House and Senate together and convinced them to send the bill to his desk.
Four bills stalled
Four other bills experts expected to at least significantly slow prison population growth stalled in spite of overwhelming support early in the session.
Kris Steele, the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, says there’s no acceptable reason for legislators to not advance those bills. His group promoted an ambitious reform agenda during the legislative session, and they were especially hopeful a group of bills, including the one that passed, would succeed. The advocacy group believes the bills would stop the state’s prison population from growing.
Steele describes the bills as “bipartisan, fully vetted reforms.”
- Senate Bill 616 focuses primarily on parole. The legislation would take away state prisoners’ ability to waive their parole hearings. The bill also would create an accelerated parole process for prisoners who have six months or less left on their sentences. In addition, the bill dictates what kind of parole violations should allow authorities to send a person back to prison.
- House Bill 1100 would give courts clear rules for determining when a defendant should be prosecuted for a felony drug crime such as possession with intent to distribute.
- House Bill 2009 shortens prison sentences for repeat offenders convicted of most nonviolent felonies.
- Senate Bill 252 failed in the House 45-49. This contentious reform bill would’ve required courts to give affordable bail terms to most defendants charged with nonviolent crimes. The goal was to make sure most people could afford to get out of jail before their trials with exceptions for people considered to be dangerous and defendants who were unlikely to come back to court.
Roadblocks and disagreements
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R, Oklahoma City) wouldn’t say he’s disappointed in the outcome, but he says a lot more could have been done.
“That doesn’t mitigate the fact that we had a very successful session,” Treat said.
The senator says he’s ready to work with legislators to pass the bills next session.
The stalled bills seemed to be popular in the House and Senate at first and then hit roadblocks in the session’s final days. House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D, Norman) says prosecutors were sharing their criticisms on sentencing reforms. She says bail bondsmen argued against bail reform.
That bill— Senate Bill 252 — was narrowly defeated in the House, 45-49.
Virgin says scare tactics took their toll on the bills popularity.
“We heard about people who were let out on bail and went on to commit other crimes,” she said.
After that Senate bill failed in the House, Virgin says it got harder to convince the Senate to approve House proposals.
Treat says senators were disappointed that the House rejected some of their ideas such as how to improve court-ordered supervision.
“Probation reform I think is absolutely key.” Treat said. “If you talk to any advocates, probation reform is what really moves the needle on justice reform.”
Gov. Stitt says the disagreements legislators had on bill language were a big challenge they couldn’t get past.
“So, then we’re just in this fight,” Stitt said. “Between the House and the Senate and which language to use. That’s when the governor has to step in.
What else got done?
- The governor did sign House Bill 1373 which will make help people released from prison with felony records get occupational licenses.
- Stitt and legislators agreed to give the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services $10 million in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to steer people in the justice system toward treatment and rehabilitation options. Although, Democrats and reform advocates point out the agency asked for $91,610,000 million for those programs.
- $1.5 million was appropriated for Women in Recovery — a nonprofit, outpatient rehabilitation program for women struggling with addiction and facing long prison sentences.
- Lawmakers set aside an additional $20 million for state prosecutors. Many reform advocates and criminal justice experts have long asked the state to increase funding for prosecutors and end their reliance on defendants’ fines and fees. Advocates complain the new appropriation does not necessarily mean reduced fees for criminal defendants.
- The budget also includes an additional $1.7 million for mental health services.
There is still a chance lawmakers can find agreement on the four reform bills next year. The bills can be reconsidered during the 2020 session.
Expert says prison population will keep growing
Transformative criminal justice reform has been a hard sell in Oklahoma for years, but this year many hoped things would be different.
Gov. Stitt campaigned on promises to help Oklahoma shed its No. 1 ranking for per capita incarceration in the nation, and a new group of legislators replaced lawmakers who used to block change.
Len Engle, a criminal justice reform policy expert with the Boston-based Crime & Justice Institute, hoped this year lawmakers would build on reforms passed under Gov. Mary Fallin and follow other states he’s helped find ways to reduce prison populations.
Instead he says Oklahoma hardly took any meaningful action toward stopping prison population growth, the opposite of other high incarceration states.
In fact Engle says Louisiana — the former No. 1 incarcerator is continuing to reduce its prison population by implementing bills tackling problems in some of the same areas Oklahoma’s stalled legislation targets.
He says Louisiana is also spending large amounts of money to help people who are released from prison change their behavior so they don’t go back.
Engle says each year Oklahoma hesitates to change its justice system, it will get even harder to catch up with states who have enacted reforms.