Bill Watch: Will 2018 be the year Oklahoma finally gets serious about criminal justice reform?

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.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

24 thoughts on “Bill Watch: Will 2018 be the year Oklahoma finally gets serious about criminal justice reform?

  1. Let the people in prison out who are serving time for crimes that are no longer felonies. Do away with the 50% restriction on possession crimes.

  2. Roll back the 85% for violent inmates like Mississippi and other States have done to 50% nake it retroactive get theses prisons overcrowding problem fixed , close down these private prisons that treat not only the inmates like animals but also the visitors .

  3. The 85% needsto be abolished and made retroactive to the date of its conception, Cases need to be looked at on individual basis taking in consideration how the defendant lived their life. Sentences need to run concurrent not consecutive. Current sentences could be changed to this. Do away with private prisons. Oklahoma has become a penal state.

  4. I believe they need to get rid of the collection agency( ABERDEEN) that deal is a crime in its self!! People already having problems paying fine then these people come charge a big lump of interest in fines they already couldn’t pay! Then they tell you this big amount you have to come up with or there will be Warrent!. Then they go to jail get out get behind again. The county turns it over to this collections place again then they add another lump of interest on it. They contact you tell you you have to this big lump of money or Warrent again. This is over and over and over!!! As they get deeper and deeper in debt with them They give up can not get out of the hole!! They just keep a revolving door going sometimes they even go back to prison title violating their parole because of not paying nothing else!!! Stop putting people back in jail and prison over fines!! Make it to where you can hit their income tax so much of it anyway not all! I think it’s awesome idea to stop money bonds but people will not loose their court appointed lawyer! Reducing sentences and the 85% to 50% is a good idea also. I hope this all gets passed now!!

  5. SB 1021 by Senator Bice is a little baffling to me but I understand the alleged problem its attempting to address. No defendant is ever prevented from applying for a public defender and requesting a hearing on that application. There has to be a finding of indigency by the court in order for someone to be eligible to receive court appointed counsel. The application has many questions and requires the applicant to contact three lawyers to get quotes. I don’t know that its ever been suggested that one who bonds out is presumed not to be indigent. Of course its a factor to consider by the court. Also, I know of no case where a defendant has elected to stay in custody because they could afford to hire a lawyer if they were to bond out. I do know of cases where a defendant has decided not to bond out knowing that there was a likelihood they would end up in prison, not waste the money on a bond, and use it to hire private counsel. The idea that someone is incentivized to stay in the Oklahoma County Jail because they couldn’t afford to hire an attorney if they bond out should be foreign to anyone that has either represented criminal defendant in Oklahoma county or spent time in and around the Oklahoma County jail. Maybe its different in other counties. I will say that the public defenders in Oklahoma County are dedicated to representing anyone in need, and are constantly asking the court to approve applications for appointed counsel for people who have bonded out of jail. They are tireless in seeking justice and offering to help anyone who needs it. In addition, Public Defenders will generally implore the court to waive court appointed counsel fees to help alleviate the cost burden. Their dedication to helping the indigent and thereby the court itself is always very

  6. Kevin McCray apparently hasn’t been to southeast Oklahoma. There is a vast difference between OKC/Tulsa justice procedures and the “systems” in many rural counties. Criminal Justice Reform is not even a concept …

  7. Definitely reduce the 85% requirement to 50%. These people deserve a second chance to be a productive member of our society instead of draining our resources. I would be much happier to see the state of Oklahoma spend its money on our children, teachers, and positive programs instead of wasting money keeping inmates locked up for ridiculous amounts of time. Building more prisons while our state falls apart is the real crime! Make it possible for people to pay their debt to society and then get on with their lives. Longer prison sentences are NOT a deterrent to crime. Many studies prove this fact.

  8. Grace’s point regarding my comment is very well taken. Counties like Oklahoma have been forced to adapt out of necessity, not only to reduce jail populations but alleviate the pretrial backlog of cases flooding the courthouse. Clearly Senator Bice’s bill would promote both of those endeavors not only in Oklahoma County, but beyond my insulated frame of reference. Any effort, including Senator Bice’s, to redress the impact our criminal justice system has on the poor and indigent should be applauded and taken very seriously.

  9. Nearly all of the defendants out on bond in Oklahoma County, either with help from a family member or friend, who apply for a public defender indicate that they have not worked for a significant period of time. There are several answers I hear as to why they are not working. Many have lost a job as the result of being incarcerated. But often I get a blank stare as to what the defendant does all day if not working. Many say their disability keeps them from working and they are on SSI or some other public assistance. I’m not very adept at assessing disability, but all are able to approach the bench and understand fully what I ask of them.

    Many do want to work and have extreme difficulty finding employment. Many do not have a valid license, a high school diploma or GED, and lack skills. However they do apply and are routinely denied interviews because of an employers use of criminal history screenings. The governor recently took the step to “ban the box” on state employment applications. We should try to induce or incentivize private employers to follow EEOC guidelines when assessing employment applications.

    Studies have shown that employment is the number one factor in reducing recidivism. It also helps defendants avoid cost warrants for failing to pay the debt with which they are saddled upon conclusion of their cases.

  10. As a convicted felon I completely agree with Mr. McCray’s assessment. I was released in Oct 2017 and have had difficulty securing employment. I feel that I do present well at interviews, however, some companies are unwilling to hire a felon. I find it difficult to determine when to reveal my conviction and incarceration since there is a thin line between ambiguity and deception. I am ashamed of my poor choices and criminal behavior and trying to explain it can sometimes feel like minimizing or “making excuses”. I believe that whether or not there is a question on the application, the truth will eventually come out. What is really needed is a change in attitude and a willingness to give people a second chance. Hearing “no” over and over can wear you down and make you want to give up.

  11. I agree with Kerri, I to am a felon and have been turned down numerous times on jobs and was to come in for an interview one time and when she looked down and seen I was a felon she said you know we will give you a call and of course she never did call. It is aggravating and very insulting when all is well but when that word felon is seen then they shine you on. That’s not fair and pretty much discrimination cause we are a felon bull…. I also believe they should bring down the 85 to 50 on violent offenders. But I also say that any and all non violent should be able to go up for parole early and be released. Some people are in there cause they were trying to make a living and some are in there cause of crooked counties I won’t say that Stephens County don’t for that LMAO… Regardless of the outcome I believe that non violent prisoners already incarcerated should have their sentences reduced and be able to be released. I have a son that is doing a violent charge and a husband that got a bum rap charge and quite a bit for his charge and it’s non violent. I say also do audits and pay attention to the counties that are fine go to send non violent people to prison.

  12. To Kerri and Lisa,

    I appreciate your input to this conversation. Employers should be prompted to stop the summary exclusion of applicants based on a criminal history screening. Its impact on the economy and its effect on recidivism warrant a change to a statewide policy that eliminates the criminal history question on the initial application so it doesn’t deter felons from applying for jobs in the first place. If the applicant is qualified for the job and there is an initial offer of employment, the a background check into criminal history can take place and an interview granted with the applicant to review that history and give the applicant a chance to discuss it with the employer. Certainly exclusions should be made on the basis on business necessity. For instances, and employer probably should not hire a person with multiple DUI’s to drive a city bus, a Taxi ect… But that applicant shouldn’t be excluded from other opportunities for which there would not be a connection with the applicants history.

    In addition, one problem with the use of criminal history screenings is that employers or their HR departments aren’t very savvy in reading the reports, either OSBI or the use of OSCN. Many cases are reduced to misdemeanors or dismissed, and many cases are deferred sentences which are not convictions.

    One problem is that employment application vary widely on the information it seeks. Some applications ask if you ever been convicted. Some ask if you’ve ever been arrested. Many of these questions can expose employers to liability for discrimination given the impact criminal history screenings have on minorities.

    All that being said, many states and cities have seen the impact criminal history screenings have had in their communities and have adopted laws and ordinances to change that and encourage employers to hire felons. Incentives can be given. Some have even suggested limiting an employers liability for hiring felons.

    As Oklahoma’s population of felons grow, we need to do everything possible to reduce the rate of recidivism by giving felons hope and opportunity for a better life and give them a stake in the community. The State and City Chambers need to be behind this effort.

    I would love to read more examples of abled bodied and willing workers being turned down for jobs as a result of a criminal history.

  13. I have been saying over and over again, make the punishment fit the crime. My fiancé is a nonviolent offender, had 3 months left on his probation, got pulled over for speeding, they revoked the full 4 years of his probation. For speeding. The punishment does NOT fit the crime. So he is in prison again. Also during this whole ordeal, I found the so-called legal system here as well as Stephens County Sheriff’s office is all too willing to add bogus charges, drive over 100 mph (same deputy who cited my fiancé) to get to the revocation hearing – of which I have video proof, then the deputy, one Duncan PD Officer, and his PO sat on the stand, under oath, and flat out lied. I witnessed the entire train wreck myself. A huge problem with prison overcrowding is overzealous so-called law enforcement personnel, PO’s, and judges throwing everyone into prison. My fiancé is not a saint and yes, should have had some form of punishment for his probation violation. But not this. I have in my hands paper and video proof of the lies Garfield County Court and Judge Newby used to throw him back in. I have proof against Stephens County on their bogus charge. But our attorney passed away very shortly after his incarceration and we have no money for another. This is a gross injustice not only to Robert, but to his children, his mother, and to me. Something needs to be done to stop this corruption.

  14. The study you cite attesting that non money bail releases are more effective than money bail releases in getting defendants back to court has been repeatedly discredited. It was based on a cherry picked population consisting of a fraction of arrestees in Colorado for that year. The author is a member of a national association whose one purpose is to eliminate money bail. It hardly meets the criteria for, nor has it ever had, an academic peer review.

  15. My better galf is currently incarcerated and has been for the last 10 years. He got 40 years for a small drug charge. Outrageous! Sure he should not have been doing it but we all make nistakes in our younger years and we all change and mature. 40 years is not fair. Maybe change laws on sentencings for such small crimes. Tgat would reduce our prison population tremendously.

  16. Reduce the 85% or at least give a chance at a reduction of it.

    My son has an 85% his crime is concidered violent even though no one was physically hurt. He got a lot of years. He got screwed over for being dyslexic. The DA used a disability against a defendant and nothing we can do because the DA has immunity.

  17. My fella is serving a 13 year sentence for just driving somebody somewhere. A friends girl, 7-8 months pregnant was beat up by her ex boyfriend. His friend ask him for a ride… he knew there was probably going to be a fight. I guess a door ended up being kicked in, knives were pulled…nobody died, thank God. The man that beat up a pregnant women, and his roommateease talk to her, and why it was so important. And was denied , both said that Gerald did nothing. Yet they came for him, and he’s been behind bars for nearly eight years. He had no prior record. His wife of eighteen years, had shot Hershey in the head four months prior. He had three children at home , ages 13-15-17..The eldest would have been valedictorian, she ended up right under that. Now he did make a huge mistake… his eldest had come to him , telling him that his youngest daughter was talking of killing herself. Ask the chief if he could please speak with her, and was denied. He then broke out of county jail. Clearly not thinking right. The judge told him if he did not sign the plea agreement for 13 years, three aggravated burglary charges. He’d give him 40, no matter what he could prove. He was scared, had never been in any serious trouble, so he sighted. This man has two collage degrees. His children were orphaned.. in 4 months-16 weeks… they lost both parents. Nobody cared. His name is Gerald W.Adams. DOC# 665482. Thank you for your time. Not sure this was appropriate? I apologize for ant typos… I know there are a few. God bless. Robin.

  18. Make these new laws retroactive!! it is not right that one can commit a crime in January and receive 10 years and the same crime is committed by another in February and they only receive 5 years? My guy is serving 9 years for auto burglary ( not condoning it at all) which was considered burglary 2 at the time of conviction. The new house bill 780 now makes auto burglary considered burglary 3 which holds a maximum 5 years. Senate Bill 969 would have made house bill 780(an amendment to the post conviction procedure act) retroactive but is stalled. It shouldn’t matter the date your crime was committed. The offense is the same and one person shouldn’t be forced to serve more than another because of the date they decided to commit the crime.

  19. My grandson who is a first offender got scared they told him he was going to do life if he didn’t take a plea bargain because the people had money they was no evidence just to say so that he said to keep the girl he was going with out of trouble because she had two children so he took a plea bargain which was violent for 15 years 6 in 9 out he has tried very hard to be good and I think that the 85% should be changed it’s already been in there he will be 24 in August and he has been penalized for being under 28 is in a private prison

  20. Please reduce 85% to 50% this is an unjust rule. The family of the person has to do time with them. 85% of a 50yr sentence for a robbery with no weapon is more severe than a person who kills someone and gets life.This is unfair punishment.

  21. if its a violent crime its always been 85% before they are considered for parole or probation is my understanding. I’m good with that, there has been talk that they want to drop it to 60%. And just so its clear. My ex husband is in prison and has to serve 80%. The talk is dropping it to 60% for them. Sorry but I think on the violent crimes it needs to stay at 80%, the victims families are not gone for 80% of the time their loved ones are gone and never coming back. Do I like the fact that my ex will never see our daughter graduate our grandchildren will never know him until they are so old they won’t care? No I hate it but it was his choice not the victims, yes it was an accident but still loss of human life can’t be fixed with Sorry. and cutting the 80% is like throwing dirt in the victims families faces. I do feel however that their fines should be cut in half no way can they get out get a job and ever come close to paying this stuff off, so then they resort to other means to pay it.

  22. I believe that all offenders should be allowed to earn points to freedom. Good behaviour,etc. They are paying for their mistakes and it’s not right for anyone to be treated the way inmates are treated in Oklahoma prisons. Reduce to 50 percent, reduce life sentences. Give them a chace at changing their lives, they are not given anything in prison. They are hungry, cold, hot, and given no consideration. It takes months to get an abscess tooth taken care of, and if they don’t have money, they suffer. Not right, they are human, regardless of race, or religion. What is wrong with people these days? Blacks are treated the worst, slavery is not gone, just check out a local prison. I have and I’m embarrassed at how people treat each other, and those less fortunate.Get rid of the private prisons they are the worst.-

  23. I completely understand Kellie’s comments, however, there are many offenders doing “violent time” (85%) for non-violent crimes. Because of this the 85% mandatory sentencing guidelines need to be revisited and possibly altered.

    1. I think they should reduce the 85% down to 50% like other states and take into consideration the time served and behavior of the person incarcerated..Give them a chance to prove theyve changed and let them return home to their spouses, children, families, and friends…This would help with our prison overcrowding problem..

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