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Bail reform should be the solution for Oklahoma’s overcrowded jails

by | August 16th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (0)

Leslie Briggs was an OK Policy summer intern. She is pursuing a Juris Doctor degree at the University of Tulsa College of Law.

Oklahoma voters know that the time is right for criminal justice reform for our state, and they showed it by passing State Questions 780 and 781 by wide margins last November. Not all stakeholders were on board: Just before the questions took effect on July 1, some Sheriffs and District Attorneys raised concerns about rising county jail populations, since many low-level drug and property offenders are no longer eligible for terms in state prisons. While overcrowded jails are a real problem, the state can do much more to solve it by reforming bail practices than by undoing recent reforms.

Like state prison populations, both urban and rural local jail populations have dramatically increased to a point that is breaking our ability to operate them safely. Oklahoma County jail, for example, was originally designed to hold 1,200 inmates; its average daily population has reached twice that size in recent years. But the vast majority of jail inmates in Oklahoma County – about 80 percent – are being held pretrial, which means they haven’t yet been convicted of a crime but can’t afford bail to get out of jail before their case is resolved. Nationwide, about 9 in 10 pretrial inmates have a bail amount set but are unable to meet the financial burden to be released from jail.

Jurisdictions across the country have shown that we can reduce that number by implementing an evidence-based, pretrial release program that relies on individual risk assessments rather than money bail. Doing so at the state level would save counties huge amounts of money without risking public safety.

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‘Prosecutorial discretion’ makes Oklahoma’s justice system a roll of the dice

by | August 7th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (4)

All Oklahomans must abide by the same laws. If you break the law, you’re sentenced according to the same statutes. In theory, this should mean that people convicted of a crime in urban Oklahoma County will receive a similar punishment to those in rural Cimarron County, and those on the Arkansas border in Sequoyah County will be treated the same as those on the Western border in Harmon County. 

In practice, however, a person’s chances of being charged with a felony or going to prison vary widely from courthouse to courthouse. That’s because prosecutors — which include District Attorneys and their assistants — have nearly unchecked power to decide whether to bring criminal charges against people who are arrested, what to charge them with, and, consequently, how severely they’re punished. That means the same crime can result in a lengthy prison sentence or a lenient probation period, depending on the county and the prosecutor in charge of the case. While this power — called “prosecutorial discretion” — is meant to allow flexibility in differing circumstances from case to case, new research suggests that it has played a major role in the growth of incarceration rates across the country.

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Will interim studies create stronger momentum for justice reform? (Capitol Update)

by | July 14th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (0)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

The House legislative interim studies for this summer and fall have been approved, assigned to committees, and published. The issue that attracted the most attention is criminal justice reform. In fact, Speaker Charles McCall combined several study requests and will appoint not one, but two special committees to deal with the various criminal justice studies that were approved. It will be interesting to see if much real progress is made next session.

Governor Fallin issued an Executive Order in July of 2016, establishing the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force and charging it with “develop[ing] comprehensive criminal justice and corrections reform policy recommendations designed to alleviate prison overcrowding and reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate while improving public safety.” The membership consisted of representatives of the courts, governor’s office, attorney general’s office, district attorneys, public defenders, private advocate organizations, chambers of commerce, YWCA, Board of Corrections, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, Department of Public Safety, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and two legislators, Sen. Greg Treat (R-OKC) and Rep. Terry O’Donnell (R-Catoosa).

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What works to stop crime (hint: it’s not incarceration)

by | June 29th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

The debate surrounding criminal justice reform in Oklahoma generally focuses on one question: How do we reduce our very high incarceration rates without jeopardizing public safety? As Gov. Fallin said about her Justice Reform Task Force’s proposals during the 2017 legislative session, “These historic votes will improve public safety in Oklahoma and save our state $1.9 billion.” On the other side of the debate, Rep. Scott Biggs, who scuttled most of the Justice Reform Task Force bills as Chairman of the Judiciary – Criminal Justice and Corrections committee this year, claimed that he did so to protect public safety

The facts in this dispute are on the side of Gov. Fallin, not Rep. Biggs. We’ve pointed out before that the link between incarceration and crime is surprisingly weak. Research shows that smart investments in the right places can effectively reduce crime, but they require a much different approach than what Oklahoma currently takes. Here’s a look at what we know works to reduce crime.

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SQ 780 should save Oklahoma millions next year

by | June 14th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (3)

Last November, Oklahoma voters passed two significant criminal justice reform measures by wide margins. SQ 780 reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, taking away the possibility of prison time for these less serious offenses. SQ 781 directs state officials to calculate the savings from keeping those people out of prison and send it to counties to invest in rehabilitative programs like mental health and substance abuse services. Using any reasonable calculation method, the savings from SQ 780 should be several million dollars in FY 2018, the first year that the questions go into effect. Lawmakers should begin planning how to fit this significant but foreseeable investment into the FY 2019 budget.

SQ 781 directs Oklahoma’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) to “use actual data or best available estimates where actual data is not available” to calculate “the savings and averted costs that accrued to the state from the implementation of the Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act [SQ 780].” OK Policy’s analysis of Department of Corrections (DOC) data suggests that the savings will be millions of dollars the first year, growing substantially in the years following.

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Highs and lows of Oklahoma’s 2017 legislative session (Part 2)

Yesterday we shared a recap of what happened this legislative session with the state budget, taxes, and education policies. Today in part two, we’ll look at outcomes related to health care, criminal justice, and economic opportunity.

We began the session with a set of top priorities in all of these policy areas. We made progress on some of our issues and were disappointed by others, but we were also heartened by the large number of Oklahomans who got involved this year, many for the first time, to advocate for a better future. That advocacy was key to stopping some big threats to health care and the safety net this year, though several positive reforms fell short as well.

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Amid budget deadlock, a reminder of what’s at stake

At the state Capitol, lawmakers remain deadlocked over how to find enough revenue to avoid crippling budget scenarios. The main barrier appears to be legislative leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on removing huge tax breaks for oil and gas producers. On Wednesday night, oil and gas industry lobbyists preemptively held an end-of-session party for lawmakers, but without a budget deal the session may not end anytime soon.

Meanwhile, school districts left in the dark about what their budgets will look like next year have already begun to make cuts. Tulsa Public Schools approved a plan to close three schools and lay off 37 teachers; Oklahoma City is increasing class sizes and selling their administration building; Woodward is shutting down a summer program and cutting staff; Muskogee is ending a popular STEM program. These cuts are only the latest in what is approaching a decade of squeezed education funding — students in 1st grade when we started cutting funding are now high school freshmen. More than 200 schools across the state have already gone to a 4-day school week, and dozens of school districts are looking at or have already shortened their school year.

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Misguided budget concerns are endangering criminal justice reform

by | May 4th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (2)

This year’s legislative session started with high hopes for the strong reform proposals that came out of the Governor’s Justice Reform Task Force (JRTF). While most of the bills sailed through their first tests of support, many have been severely weakened in recent weeks as legislators grow concerned with their budget implications. But lawmakers should be more concerned about the looming costs of inaction and resist dubious claims that court debt reforms will endanger critical services. Passing the task force reforms is critical to saving Oklahoma’s finances.

Inside the Capitol and across the state, it’s well-understood that we need a different approach to criminal justice. Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the country, and we are on pace to grow it by another 25 percent in the next 10 years, which would require three new prisons at a price tag of nearly $2 billion. That’s money the state clearly doesn’t have. Even with current funding and inmate numbers, we’re not operating our prisons effectively or safely. The crisis isn’t coming; it’s already here.

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The Indigent Defense System needs $1.5 million to avoid another constitutional crisis

by | April 19th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (2)

In recent weeks, the Legislature has scrambled to provide enough funding to hold agencies over until the end of the year: nearly $35 million to DHS, and over $700,000 to the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS). As we pointed out last year, OIDS has been inching toward insolvency for years, as the need for representation continues to grow but appropriations continue to decline.

This year, in order to avoid a legal crisis, the agency’s budget must be returned at least to the barely-adequate level of funding provided at the beginning of FY 2016. That will require $1.5 million more than what they got in FY 2017. While OIDS is competing for very limited funds with a great number of other priorities, the Legislature must fund Oklahoma’s constitutional duty to provide indigent defense. Otherwise we risk a crisis like the one happening in New Orleans, where public defenders have begun refusing felony cases they can’t represent properly and insisting that innocent clients were sent to prison for lack of representation. Out of that crisis, Oklahoma could be forced to release thousands of defendants, innocent and guilty alike, due to lack of representation.

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Missed opportunities for criminal justice reform this session (Capitol Updates)

by | March 9th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

Legislators missed an opportunity with three bills that are now dormant for this session to make significant reforms in the criminal justice system. The bills were SB 364 and SB 369 by Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, and HB 1730 by Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa. The bills were casualties of the legislative deadline requiring bills to be passed out of the committee to which they were assigned in their house of origin by last Thursday. None of the three bills received a hearing in committee.

SB 364 and HB 1730 mirrored each other and would have reformed the bail bond system for pretrial detention. Many Oklahoma courts operate on a schedule-based bail system. A monetary bond is set based on the accused’s alleged offense with little or no consideration given to the accused’s personal circumstances. Thus, bond has the opposite effect than that for which it was intended. People who have no money stay in jail even though they are at little risk of failing to appear for court or being a danger to someone or the community. People who should remain in jail are released because they have the money to get out, free to abscond or hurt someone.

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