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Funding postsecondary education for incarcerated Oklahomans could pay off for public safety and the budget

by | December 12th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice, Education | Comments (1)

Oklahoma has made encouraging progress on justice reform in recent years. Reforms passed in 2016 and 2018 will slow prison population growth and spur investments in rehabilitation. While these are important steps in the right direction, criminal justice reform should not only lower prison admissions or hasten release. Nearly 27,000 individuals are in Department of Corrections (DOC) custody, and approximately 90 percent will eventually be released. For justice reform to be successful in the long-term, we must prepare those currently incarcerated for meaningful re-entry back into our communities.

One crucial component to successful reentry is access to postsecondary education. Incarcerated individuals are under-educated. Among the general public, about one in three adults have a college degree; for formerly incarcerated, fewer than one in 20 do. On average, men entering Oklahoma prisons have a sixth-grade education; women have an-eighth grade education, according to DOC staff. Despite its budgetary difficulties, DOC has been proactive in providing high school education to incarcerated individuals at no cost to the individual. Going further to expand access to postsecondary education for Oklahoma’s incarcerated individuals would yield benefits not only to incarcerated individuals, but to the state’s safety and budget as a whole.

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In its first year, SQ 780 reversed 10 years of growth in felony filings

by | November 28th, 2018 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

New data shows that State Question 780 reduced felony filings by over 14,000 across Oklahoma’s District Courts in its first year in a major realignment of how the state deals with low-level offenses. SQ 780, approved by voters by a wide margin in 2016, reclassified simple drug possession and many minor property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Assessing the First Year of SQ 780, a new report from Open Justice Oklahoma, uses original data from aggregated District Court criminal filings in the last ten years to evaluate the impact of the justice reform ballot measure in FY 2018. Open Justice Oklahoma, a project of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, seeks to improve understanding of our justice system through analysis of public data. The data reveal several trends:

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Property crime decreased in Oklahoma as SQ 780 reduced punishments

by | November 14th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (5)

Before 2016, stealing a smartphone in Oklahoma could be charged as a felony with the possibility of prison time. The passage of SQ 780 raised the felony theft threshold in Oklahoma from $500 to $1000, meaning a person has to steal something worth more than $1000 to be charged with felony larceny.  

These changes went into effect in July 2017, and the early returns are very encouraging: statewide reports of theft fell in Oklahoma between 2016 and 2017. After SQ 780 reduced minor property crimes to misdemeanors, rates of theft continued to fall. Lower crime numbers, coupled with the sharp decline in felony filings strongly support the idea that smart justice reform can lead to both less crime and less punishment. These positive trends should help to sustain justice reform efforts as Oklahoma works to reduce its world-leading incarceration rate.  

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OKPolicyCast 40: In prison for what’s now a misdemeanor (with Damion Shade and Colleen McCarty)

by | October 30th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice, Podcast | Comments (5)

The OKPolicyCast is hosted by Gene Perry and produced by Gene Perry and Jessica Vazquez. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcher, or RSS. The podcast theme music is by Zébre. If you have any questions for the OKPolicyCast, topics you’d like us to cover, or people you want us to interview, you can reach us at policycast@okpolicy.org.

In 2016, Oklahomans voted to approve State Question 780, which changed simple drug possession crimes and low-level, non-violent property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. That law went into effect on July 1, 2017 and is already reshaping Oklahoma’s justice system, with many fewer Oklahomans being charged with a felony and sent to prison for drug possession.

Yet there are still thousands of Oklahomans serving long prison sentences or living with a felony record and all the serious consequences that come with it for a crime that would now be a misdemeanor. This raises a serious moral and practical question: Is it just to keep imprisoning those people when Oklahomans have clearly said that their crime should not lead to prison?

To get at this question and what might be done about it, I spoke with OK Policy’s criminal justice analyst Damion Shade, as well as Colleen McCarty, a law student and intern with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform’s commutation campaign, which is advocating to commute the sentences of some of those Oklahomans most dramatically affected by felony possession charges before SQ 780.

You can download the podcast here, subscribe at the links above, or play it in your browser:

Three priorities for criminal justice reform (Capitol Update)

by | October 22nd, 2018 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (2)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

There’s a growing consensus that “criminal justice reform” should be an important part of the change we need in Oklahoma. It would free up funds for other priorities like mental health and education. It would blunt the need for new spending for prisons. And it would stop the needless disruption of the lives of thousands of offenders whose families — and society — would be better served by their remaining in the community for treatment or rehabilitation.

Since criminal justice reform, by definition, deals with legal issues, it can get complicated. Some who are currently part of the justice system see it as working for them, so they resist change. Those who want change aren’t always sure what it will take to reach the goals they want. Conflict and confusion are the result. For the past four years, despite strong efforts by citizens, advocates, experts, legislative leaders and the governor, progress has been slow. Here are some suggestions that would yield both immediate and long- term results.

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Making recent justice reforms retroactive is smart policy – and a moral necessity

by | October 10th, 2018 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (2)

Voters passed State Questions 780 and 781 last year in response to Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. These measures reclassified simple drug possession and several low-level property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies and directed the savings toward treatment and rehabilitation services. The changes have already significantly cut felony filings across the state, though people charged with those crimes under previous law continue to enter prisons at a similar rate.

While these reforms will promote a much more rehabilitation-focused justice system going forward, thousands of Oklahomans are serving felony sentences for crimes that are now prosecuted as misdemeanors. This presents both moral and practical questions: Is it just to imprison those who would not be eligible for prison sentences now?

Oklahoma should make the effects of SQ 780 and other recent justice reforms retroactive; it’s better for Oklahoma families, better for traditionally underserved communities, and it’s better for basic fairness in our overburdened criminal justice system.

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The cost of maintaining the world’s highest incarceration (Capitol Update)

by | September 10th, 2018 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (3)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

When it comes to mass incarceration, Oklahoma is No. 1 (in the world!) But what are the numbers behind this, by now, well known fact? And what effect does it have on Oklahoma’s state budget? Take a look:

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The official SQ 780 savings calculation rests on flawed assumptions

by | September 6th, 2018 | Posted in Blog, Budget, Criminal Justice | Comments (2)

[duggar11 / Flickr]

Two years ago, Oklahoma voters passed State Questions 780 and 781, together known as the Smart Justice Reform Act. SQ 780 reclassified simple drug possession and many low-level property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. SQ 781 directs the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) to calculate the savings to the state as a result of the changes made by SQ 780 and to distribute that amount to counties to provide mental health, substance abuse, and other rehabilitative services.

As required, OMES released the savings calculation for Fiscal Year 2018 on July 31. To the surprise of many, they estimated that the changes made by SQ 780 would save the state $63.5 million in FY 2018 and a total of $137.8 million from FY 2018 to FY 2026. Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh strongly criticized the report, saying that the Department of Corrections had not saved any money over the last year. Why is there such a divergence between the two agencies? Our analysis shows that the assumptions that OMES made are not supported by data, and they lead to an unrealistic picture of what SQ 780 accomplished in its first year.

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The future of medical marijuana in Oklahoma

by | August 30th, 2018 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (4)

More than half a million Oklahomans voted in favor of State Question 788 legalizing medical marijuana, making Oklahoma the 30th state in the nation to legalize the drug in some form. SQ 788 directed the Department of Health to issue rules governing the implementation of the law, and after a flurry of controversy and a do-over forced by Attorney General Mike Hunter, Governor Fallin signed new emergency rules on July 31.

The regulation process, however, is still incomplete. While the emergency rules implement the language of SQ 788, there are several areas, including laboratory testing of marijuana products, changes to law enforcement practices, and patient licensing procedures that remain unsettled because SQ 788 did not explicitly authorize the Health Department to create rules. To fill in those gaps, Governor Fallin directed a bipartisan group of legislators known as the Medical Marijuana Working Group to gather information on gaps in the law and form proposals to consider during the 2019 legislative session.

Based on the early comments of the Medical Marijuana Working Group, legislators favor a more “hands-off” approach to medical marijuana rules. The working group is trying to balance the concerns of law enforcement and public health officials with what advocates have called one of the least restrictive and most “patient-centered” medical marijuana ballot measures in the nation, and the next legislature will consider proposals to change and fill in regulations in 2019.

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OKPolicyCast 35: A frank conversation about criminal justice (with D’Marria Monday, Jill Webb, Erik Grayless, and Kris Steele)

by | August 7th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice, Podcast | Comments (0)

The OKPolicyCast is hosted by Gene Perry with production help from Jessica Vazquez. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcher, or RSS. The podcast theme music is by Zébre. If you have any questions for the OKPolicyCast, topics you’d like us to cover, or people you want us to interview, you can reach us at policycast@okpolicy.org.

Last week, Oklahoma Policy Institute hosted our annual Summer Policy Institute for about 60 college students from all over Oklahoma. The 4-day event featured speakers and panels on a wide range of topics. For this episode of the OKPolicyCast, we’re sharing the live recording of one of those panels — an interesting, frank, contentious discussion of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

If after listening to this you’d like to hear more from panelist Jill Webb, check out Episode 25 of the OKPolicyCast, which features an interview with her.

You can download the episode here, subscribe at the links above, or play it in your browser:

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