Skip to Content

Attention College Students: Applications for the 2017 Summer Policy Institute are now open! Click here to apply. 

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.

Continue Reading »

Misguided budget concerns are endangering criminal justice reform

by | May 4th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

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.

Continue Reading »

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

by | April 19th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

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.

Continue Reading »

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

by | March 9th, 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.

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.

Continue Reading »

OK PolicyCast 25: How the criminal justice system really works

by | February 28th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice, Podcast | Comments (0)

You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google PlayStitcher, or RSS. The podcast theme music is by Zébre.

On this episode we speak with Jill Webb, an attorney with the Tulsa County Public Defender’s office. She gives us a tour of how the real criminal justice system is different from popular ideas about police and the courts, embodied by shows like Law and Order.

You can subscribe at the links above, download the podcast here, or play it in your browser:

Justice Reform Task Force recommendations could be the solution Oklahoma desperately needs

by | February 22nd, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (3)

Photo used under a Creative Commons license.

Just before the start of the legislative session, the Justice Reform Task Force released a report that details the crisis in our state’s corrections system and recommends policy changes to deal with the crisis in a safe and effective manner. If passed and implemented, their proposals could be the solution that Oklahoma’s criminal justice system desperately needs to support the rehabilitation of people convicted of crimes and relieve a prison system that’s bursting at the seams. Positive reforms made it through the Legislature and through the ballot box last year, and the Task Force recommendations show us how to build on that success.

In previewing the Task Force, we pointed at the budgetary constraints facing the committee and speculated that they might look at reforms that were passed in 2012 but implemented poorly; modify or eliminate sentencing enhancements; expand geriatric and medical parole; and establish incentives for agencies to divert offenders away from prison. Their 27 recommendations, many of which are legislative proposals for 2017, incorporate some of these ideas but go much further, addressing the front door, the back door, and the trap door of incarceration.

Continue Reading »

Lawmakers must confront racial disparities head-on as they reform the justice system

by | February 15th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (0)

The need for criminal justice reform is well illustrated by outrageous top-level statistics showing Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate among the highest in the nation (about 700 in prison per 100,000 residents), and a need to bring down spending on corrections (nearly half a billion dollars in FY 2016 and yet vastly insufficient to safely operate our prisons). While those numbers are staggering, they hide deep racial disparities. Mass incarceration is bad for the state as a whole, but the damage it is doing to minority communities is even worse.

As lawmakers take another run at criminal justice reform this year, they should heed the examples of other states and include reducing racial disparities as a core goal. If they don’t, they risk making the problem worse.

Continue Reading »

‘Shame on us’ if we don’t address over-incarceration this year (Capitol Update)

by | February 10th, 2017 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (3)

OK Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh

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.

Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary last week and presented his request for an additional $1.165 billion appropriation for next fiscal year. The request is, of course, totally unrealistic, and Allbaugh knows it. But he’s trying to make the point that we are incarcerating too many people in Oklahoma, and we’re not treating those who are incarcerated right. In addition, we are wasting taxpayer money.

Also, last week Governor Fallin’s Criminal Justice Task Force released its final report. It was a real eye-opener! The report says that the Task Force “analyzed the state’s sentencing, corrections, and community supervision data and reviewed the latest research on reducing recidivism and improving public safety. The Task Force found that:

Continue Reading »

New OK Policy report shows how criminal fines and fees trap Oklahomans in justice system without increasing state revenues

by | February 1st, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

Tens of thousands of Oklahomans enter the justice system each year, and many come out owing thousands of dollars in fines and fees. For poor Oklahomans, this debt can swallow up most of their family’s income and trap them in a cycle of incarceration and poverty. Dozens of state agencies receive funding from these fees, which have been used to plug holes in their budgets as tax revenue dries up. However, because most criminal defendants are already in poverty, only a small fraction of criminal fines and fees are ever collected, and state and local governments in Oklahoma spend far more incarcerating people for nonpayment.

A new report from Oklahoma Policy Institute examines the growth of fines and fees in recent years; how increasing court debt impacts the justice system poor Oklahomans; and the role that fine and fee revenue has come to play in state agencies’ budgets. The report also lays out recommendations for reform.

You can find the executive summary and full report here.

Oklahoma’s prisons are still on a path to disaster

by | January 5th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (2)

Even with positive and important criminal justice reforms passing in the Legislature and in the ballot box this year, the Oklahoma prison population is on track to grow by 25 percent – about 7,200 inmates – in the next ten years. Unless we do something to prevent this growth, it will cost nearly $2 billion in new prison construction and operating costs in that time. Governor Fallin’s Justice Reform Task Force, a group of stakeholders tasked with putting forth proposals to curb that growth, is confronting an incarceration problem that’s among the most severe in the nation and quickly getting worse. 

Those projections come from the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which are providing technical assistance to the Task Force as it develops its proposals. Their analysis of data from the Department of Corrections and Administrative Office of the Courts paints a striking picture of a system that is ever more bent toward incarceration, even as state leaders are finally acknowledging the steep human and financial costs of the status quo.

Continue Reading »