An earlier version of this post inaccurately reported the number of people potentially affected by retroactivity. It has been corrected.
This legislative session, leaders of both parties, the governor, the Oklahoma business community and the public at large have expressed a clear desire to work towards ending Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. Some of these legislative initiatives build on the progress of Gov. Fallin’s Criminal Justice Task Force, but many proposals represent new attempts to lower Oklahoma’s highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat have both said they want to pass criminal justice reform bills this legislative session. With a strong coalition and a committed legislature, there are good reasons to be optimistic about criminal justice reform this year. Here are a few of the bills we’re watching:
Making SQ 780 retroactive has broad support
In 2016, Oklahoma voters changed simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor with SQ 780, and the Legislature built on that progress in 2018 by reducing sentences for some low-level offenses. The early impact of these reforms shows promise, but these changes only applied to people arrested after these measures passed. Thousands of Oklahomans are in prison for felony sentences which would be misdemeanors under current law.
A number of bills before the Legislature this session would right this injustice and help save state tax dollars. HB 1269 (Rep. Dunnington and Rep. Echols), SB 276 (Sen. Young) and SB 357 (Sen. Bice) would each create a process by which the more than 2,000 inmates in prison for felony drug possession could be resentenced under current law. Eligible Oklahomans could use the process created by these bills to downgrade their prior felony convictions into misdemeanors, opening new avenues for employment, education, and housing for many.
Reforming cash bail and court fines and fees will save jail costs and make our system more just
Across Oklahoma, thousands of people are trapped in county jails simply because they can’t afford to pay bail. Even short jail stays can be devastating to a family’s well-being, and these effects are particularly damaging to communities of color and those in rural communities. Incarcerated parents can lose their jobs, their homes, and custody of their kids even before they’ve been found guilty of any crime.
SB 252 (Sen. Thompson and Sen. Kannady), SB 974 (Sen. Young) and HB 2083 (Rep. Dollens) are bail reform measures designed to help end the unjust practice of locking people up simply because they can’t pay a bondsman.
HB 2188 (Rep. Brewer) prohibits incarceration for a failure to pay fines and court fees. Similarly, HB 2279 (Rep. West) directs courts to waive fines and fees under certain circumstances and directs district attorneys to also offer more hardship exemptions. In addition, this bill enacts several probation reforms, offering new incentives to ex-offenders who complete vocational training and learn a valuable skill.
These measures should make our county jail system more cost-efficient. In doing so, they’ll also help end the cycle of court debt and arrest, which unjustly burdens both low-income and historically marginalized communities of color in Oklahoma.
Properly funding public defenders and our court system will produce better results
Oklahoma’s courts are largely funded by the fines and fees of criminal defendants. Court debt has skyrocketed over the past twenty years, driven by attempts to make up for revenue lost to tax cuts. It’s a system that often traps low-income defendants in a cycle of poverty and incarceration, and these effects are felt most acutely in the neighborhoods that can least afford it.
SB 694 (Sen. Thompson) is an attempt to separate the fines collected by defendants from direct court funding. SB 249 (Sen. Thompson) stabilizes drug court funding and HB 1416 (Rep. Waldron) leverages public-private partnerships to better fund diversion programs. These reforms will help ensure that fewer Oklahomans end up incarcerated due to a lack of available mental health and substance abuse treatment or simply because of financial need.
Racial and community impact statements can strengthen smart justice
Communities of color are disproportionately affected by incarceration in Oklahoma. One in 15 adult black men in Oklahoma is in prison, giving us the highest rate of Black incarceration in the country. Oklahomans of Hispanic descent are also overrepresented in our prisons, making up 9 percent of the state population and 15 percent of its prisoners. Similarly, Native Americans make up about 9 percent of Oklahoma’s population, but Native American women have been uniquely affected by our justice system. Native women represent 12 percent of the incarcerated women in this state.
Because Oklahoma’s justice system interacts differently with distinct communities, data on this impact could help policy makers understand the effects of the legislation they consider. SB 253 (Sen. Young), HB 1097, (Sen. Osburn) and HB 1855 (Rep. Hill) would highlight and provide evidence of the impact of criminal justice legislation on different communities in Oklahoma.