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.

Justice reform bills are in big trouble

The solutions that the governor’s task force suggested follow a model that has led to impressive results in many other states: reducing admissions through the front door, increasing supervised releases through the back door, and helping probationers and parolees avoid the trap door into incarceration. The full package of reforms was expected to lead to a 9 percent reduction in the prison population over the next decade, instead of the 25 percent increase under current policies.

JRTF Final Report

The effectiveness of the proposals in their current form, however, is very much in doubt. The front-door reforms are limping: SB 649, a bill that would ease the effects of habitual offender laws that sometimes lead to very lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes, was amended to exclude the bulk of charges covered. SB 786, which was meant to create a lower tier of burglary offense, now only modifies certain mandatory minimum sentences. Both bills will need approval by a conference committee after the changes in the House Judiciary – Criminal Justice and Corrections committee. Two other proposals designed to reduce the duration of prison stays for nonviolent drug offenses never even received a committee hearing. The only bill to advance unscathed is HB 2290, a bill meant to expand the use of drug courts for high and medium risk offenders.

The back-door reforms to the parole process also face an uncertain future. HB 2286 is a wide-ranging bill that would automatically parole many nonviolent offenders, grant earlier release to aging inmates, and require that at least two members of the Pardon and Parole Board have mental health or social work experience. This bill must also be approved by a conference committee, meaning it will likely be revised before final passage.

Finally, SB 689 is a far-reaching bill dealing with probation, included several provisions aimed at reducing the financial burdens that trap many Oklahomans in deep debt after their involvement in the justice system. Under the original language, people who owed money to the courts would be able to set payment plans of no more than 10 percent of their discretionary income and have some debt waived if they enroll in higher education or a workforce development program. Those provisions were removed in the House Judiciary – Criminal Justice committee.

A classic case of penny wise and pound foolish

These bills appear to have run up against the hard reality that we pointed out last year: many of these reforms will require upfront investments to upgrade information technology systems, hire more personnel, provide staff training, and expand services. In all, the Department of Corrections would need nearly $16 million to implement the full package of reforms. About half of that would go to rehabilitative services both inside and outside prisons.

Those investments are difficult to make when the state is in another deep budget hole, but studies consistently show that every dollar spent on drug treatment saves several dollars in reduced crime. Businesses have to spend money to make money later; state legislators should recognize that they must spend some money on services now to save a lot more on prisons later.

The amendment that gutted fees and fines reforms in SB 689 was also apparently based on misguided budget concerns. Rep. Scott Biggs argued that the court debt management provisions in the bill would reduce collections for services like the Victims Compensation Program by as much as $58 million and for law enforcement agencies by more than $20 million. These claims are completely unfounded. District Courts collect about $150 million per year in criminal and civil fines and fees, including about $55 million that is distributed among dozens of agencies outside of the judicial system. Of that total, only $4.5 million per year goes to the Victims Compensation fund and another $20 million for law enforcement. Even if this measure did reduce collections, Rep. Biggs cost claims are wildly inflated.

In reality, the original language of SB 689 is unlikely to reduce collections. Quite the opposite — by ensuring that payment plans are set at a level that encourages compliance, it is more likely to boost revenues. Because we charge criminal fines well beyond most defendants ability to pay, currently only 5 to 11 percent of criminal justice debt in Oklahoma is ever collected. Even though caseloads are growing and we add new fines and fees almost every year, criminal collections for court operations haven’t risen since at least 2003. Meanwhile, growing fees are trapping people in the justice system and making our incarceration problem worse.

Lawmakers are right to be concerned about the budget, but being fiscally responsible means passing the smart, bold criminal justice reforms that were introduced at the beginning of session. Lawmakers still have time to fix the damage when these bills appear in conference committee; Oklahoma should speak out and demand that they do.