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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.

The Front Door: Reducing prison admissions and sentence lengths for nonviolent crimes

One of the most striking findings of the Task Force is that 75 percent of prison admissions were for nonviolent offenses, and most of those offenders had one or zero prior convictions. Even worse, Oklahoma has both higher admissions and longer average sentences than its neighboring states, so our justice system punishes nonviolent offenders both more often and more harshly. The passage of SQ 780 will help to fix this, especially since drug possession is the top offense for those in prison.

The Task Force recommends further changes to ensure that prison beds are reserved for people who are a threat to their communities. This includes diverting more offenders to drug courts and requiring those courts to use evidence-based interventions for substance abuse treatment. Other bills on this topic aim to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug crimes like possession with intent to distribute, manufacturing, cultivation, and trafficking, as well as burglary.

Convictions for these offenses will still bring a prison sentence in most cases, but judges will have more flexibility to decide what is appropriate.

When nonviolent offenders enter prisons through the front door – being sentenced directly to prison – the goal should be to help them be successful when they come out so that they don’t return. Long sentences for nonviolent crimes take us further from that goal.

The Back Door: Releasing more inmates on parole and improving supervision

Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board is remarkably stingy in its release decisions, and the Task Force notes that many offenders waive their hearings due to the unlikelihood of being released and the desire to forego post-release supervision. As a result, only 6 percent of those released exit onto parole. Despite having the second highest imprisonment rate in the country – at about 700 per 100,000 – we are near the very bottom for the number of people on parole – only 87 per 100,000. That means people stay in prison much longer and are released without supervision more often, both of which increase the likelihood of reoffending.

The Task Force recommends establishing administrative parole, a reform that has shown promise in states like Mississippi and South Dakota. Administrative parole allows inmates to bypass a release hearing if they meet certain criteria, like having committed only nonviolent crimes, maintaining a clean compliance record in prison, and completing a rehabilitation plan that would be required for new inmates. By giving fewer decisions to a Pardon and Parole Board that defaults to denying release, this would strike a more reasonable balance in who gets released.

Parole eligibility could be expanded further according to medical needs and advanced age, which also reduces excessive costs of caring for inmates who clearly pose no threat. In addition, providing more resources to newly released parolees could go a long way to ensure that people just getting out of prison are set up to be successful.

Of all the areas targeted by the Task Force, jump-starting a parole system that has all but ground to a halt holds the most promise for addressing the corrections crisis. 

The Trap Door: Helping probationers and parolees succeed so they don’t fall into incarceration

Many Oklahomans who end up in prison don’t enter through the front door by being sentenced to a term in prison. Instead, they are sentenced to probation or released on parole, then either violate the terms of their supervision by failing a drug test or missing a court date or parole officer meeting, or they are convicted of another crime. In FY 2013, about 1 in 4 prison admissions were in this category. The Task Force found that over half of these come on technical violations rather than new crimes. The problem is that decisions to revoke probation for technical violations are too often arbitrary and all-or-nothing, coming without much warning after a series of minor infractions are ignored, and can result in a long stay in prison. These inmates aren’t coming through the front door; they’re falling through a trap door.

The Task Force recommends developing a system of “swift, certain, and proportional sanctions” and giving time off supervision periods for compliance. Other recommendations include setting specific standards for paying off court fines and fees – a key recommendation in OK Policy’s recent report on the topic – and forgiving court debt if a person is enrolled in higher education or a workforce development program.

A bold plan to safely reduce the prison population

Taken together, the reforms offered by the Task Force provide a blueprint for the progress that’s been seen in places like Texas and Georgia. Oklahoma has, unfortunately, been resistant to big, bold changes to its criminal justice system in recent years. By slightly closing the front door, opening much wider the back door, and sealing the trap door to prison, legislators can begin to fix that in a big way.