This post is the second in a series highlighting key bills in several issues areas that we’re following. A previous post looked at legislation affecting economic opportunity for Oklahoma families.

After a disappointing end to the 2017 session, there are encouraging signs that 2018 could be a more fruitful year for Oklahoma’s criminal justice reform advocates. Many of the far-reaching proposals of the Justice Reform Task Force have a shortened path to the Governor’s desk this year since they already passed several votes last year, and House Speaker Charles McCall has said he intends to bring them up quickly. In addition to those proposals, which focus on reining in prison population growth, there are promising ideas to make progress on pretrial justice and to reduce the impact of criminal fines and fees.

These three areas are our top priorities in criminal justice policy this year. If the Legislature acts decisively on the bills outlined below, it would mark a long overdue turning point in our state’s justice system.

Justice Reform Task Force proposals are on the fast track in 2018

Of the 27 recommendations offered by the Governor’s Justice Reform Task Force in 2017, only a handful of the least consequential proposals ultimately were adopted last year. The proposed package included major reforms to reduce sentencing guidelines for many crimes, introduce an administrative parole system to encourage early release, and follow evidence-based probation and supervision practices. They were the most significant justice reform measures in years, and they were projected to save the state $1.9 billion in prison costs over the next ten years by averting prison population growth of over 9,000 inmates. 

Many of those bills, including SB 689 (probation and supervision) and HB 2286 (administrative parole), need only to pass final votes in conference committee and in each chamber before going to Governor Fallin. Others, including all of the sentencing reform bills, must be reintroduced because they never received a committee hearing last year. While their passage is by no means assured, there is far less equivocation by House leadership on the bills, and advocates are pleased with changes to key committees that should increase their chances of success this year. 

Important reforms to reduce pretrial incarceration are on the table

There are several bills this year that offer hope for meaningful progress to reduce pretrial incarceration. Our current system relies on money bail to encourage a person to show up for their court dates, which means that arrestees must pay a bail bondsman several hundred or thousand dollars, or else spend weeks or months behind bars awaiting trial. This system overcrowds our jails and derails the lives of many low-income defendants who lose their jobs and families despite not having been convicted of a crime.

HB 3694 by Rep. Kevin Calvey (R-Oklahoma City) would be a great start to addressing this issue. The bill would get rid of money bail for most nonviolent offenses, replacing it with a promise to show up in court called a “personal recognizance” bond. Research shows that these bonds are as effective and much more efficient than money bail.

Another bill, SB 1021 by Sen. Stephanie Bice (R-Oklahoma City), would address a related problem. Currently, the court assumes that defendants who are able to post money bail can also afford a lawyer to represent them, and it takes a great deal of effort to prove that’s not the case. That means that many low-income defendants choose not to post bail, because if they do, they will be required to spend much more money to hire an attorney. This dynamic serves to incentivize people to stay in jail until their case is resolved at great cost to taxpayers. SB 1021 would end this problem by ensuring that posting bail does not affect whether a person will be represented by a public defender.

Opportunities to reduce the impact of criminal fines and fees

Oklahoma’s courts have a big fines and fees problem. The enormous growth in court-related debt over the past twenty years, driven by attempts to make up for revenue lost to income and oil production tax cuts, has resulted in massive numbers of people defaulting on their payments and spending time in jail for the “crime” of being poor. It’s a system that often traps low-income defendants in a cycle of poverty and incarceration, and the effects are felt most acutely in the neighborhoods that can least afford it.

SB 689, the Justice Reform Task Force bill focused on supervision practices, had very strong language that would limit payment plans to a small portion of a defendant’s discretionary income and create programs to forgive portions of debt based on pursuing higher education and timely payments over a two-year period. That language was removed during a committee hearing but can and should be put back in. Similar policies were passed in Louisiana last year, a sign that even highly strained justice systems can make meaningful progress in this area.

We also expect proposals  to emerge this year to combat the debtor’s prison problem by requiring timely failure-to-pay hearings, and we may see even more ambitious proposals as well. A California program that allowed people with uncollected traffic and misdemeanor fines to pay off old debts at a discount raised over $24 million in net revenue and restored 192,000 suspended driver’s licenses. With the courts forced to operate on dwindling fee revenue, this idea may be attractive to lawmakers this year.

Signs point to progress on criminal justice in 2018

The wealth of positive criminal justice proposals this year is accompanied by relatively few bills that would impose more punitive sentencing. Such bills are usually common, so it’s a good sign that most legislators are more interested in solutions than in scoring “tough-on-crime” points, as they did last year in attempts to roll back SQ 780. The bipartisan consensus in favor of reform is at a high point; legislators must take advantage this year.