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Accepting our highest-in-the-world incarceration rate means believing that Oklahomans are the worst people

by | June 19th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

We knew the day would come when Oklahoma surpassed Louisiana as the highest-incarcerating state in the highest-incarcerating country in the world. After Louisiana’s legislature passed a sweeping criminal justice reform package in 2017, Oklahoma Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh said that he “expect[s] Oklahoma’s incarceration rate to eventually be the country’s highest.”

As it turns out, Oklahoma has had the highest incarceration rate in the world since the end of 2016; we just didn’t know it because federal statistics are released on a year-long lag. This bitter milestone should be an occasion to reflect on what this says about our state and our current justice reform debates. We must begin to ask opponents of reform why Oklahoma deserves to maintain the highest incarceration rate in the world, and what that says about their view of our fellow citizens.

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Oklahoma’s battle to reduce incarceration and increase justice will continue (Capitol Update)

by | June 11th, 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.

At the end of last session, one had to wonder if, having passed several criminal justice reform measures, Oklahomans and their leaders would figuratively congratulate themselves, call it done, and move on to other things. It looks like that’s not going to happen. I recently attended a planning session of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform in which national and local voices, including political leaders, from both the conservative and liberal perspective are coalescing around working to take Oklahoma off the list as the number one state for incarcerating its citizens.

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Judges on the Ballot in Oklahoma: What you need to know

by | June 6th, 2018 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice, Elections | Comments (8)

Photo by julochka / CC BY-NC 2.0

The original version of this post was authored by past OK Policy intern Forrest Farjadian. It was updated for 2018 by OK Policy intern Max West.

Oklahoma is one of 39 states where voters have a role in selecting judges. On November 6, Oklahoma voters will decide whether to retain five Supreme Court justices, two Court of Criminal Appeals judges, and four Court of Civil Appeals judges. Judicial elections usually don’t attract as much publicity as other races, so we’re taking a look at how judges are chosen, what’s at stake in the elections, and how you can learn about the candidates.

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Investments in justice reform are a good start, but savings are a long ways away

by | May 24th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (4)

Criminal justice reform advocates should be encouraged – though not overjoyed – at the progress made on justice reform in Oklahoma’s 2018 legislative session. Even in their amended forms, new laws that open up our broken parole process, reduce sentences for many nonviolent crimes, and recalibrate our supervision practices will significantly slow growth in our prison population.

At her press conference to sign those measures, Gov. Fallin also announced that the FY 2019 budget includes funding critical to making justice reform work, including an additional $11 million to the Department of Corrections, $5 million to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and $1.1 million for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, among several other appropriations.

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OK PolicyCast Episode 29: What Just Happened

You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunesGoogle PlayStitcher, SoundCloud, or RSS. The podcast theme music is by Zébre. If you have any questions for the OK PolicyCast, topics you’d like us to cover, or people you want us to interview, you can reach us at

The OK PolicyCast is back! In this episode, we look at what just happened in one of the most tumultuous legislative years in Oklahoma history. Bailey Perkins speaks about what it was like being at the state Capitol before, during, and after the teacher walkout. Carly Putnam shares some major developments in health care policy. And Ryan Gentzler talks about this year’s most important criminal justice legislation, both the good and the bad.

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

Bill Watch: This year in #okleg

Last week, the Oklahoma legislature adjourned one of the more extraordinary legislative sessions in recent memory – one that followed one special session, ran partially concurrently with another, included nine days of protests at the Capitol, saw the Legislature raise revenues for the first time in nearly 30 years, witnessed a first step in criminal justice reform after years of efforts, and resulted in the largest funding bill in state history (although not if adjusted for inflation). But in all of the confusion and breaking news, it was easy to miss other developments. In the posts below, brief summaries by issue area lay out the major victories and defeats of this spring’s legislative session.

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Juvenile life sentence bill would be a return to outdated thinking

by | May 1st, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (5)

Oklahoma’s parole system has been broken for years. In most states, parole is the most common form of release from prison; it allows a person to serve a portion of their sentence under community supervision to provide accountability while they readjust to society. But despite now having the highest incarceration rate in the country, at 990 inmates per 100,000 residents, we have among the lowest rates of people being supervised on parole. There were 6,218 people in prison for nonviolent offenses sitting in Oklahoma prisons who had passed their first parole date at the end of 2017.

Members of Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board are currently required to have experience in the criminal justice field, which has limited the board to mostly judges and law enforcement officers, who tend to have punitive attitudes. To begin to address this, SB 1221 was introduced to require that all Board members receive training on best practices for reforming criminal behavior and that two members have experience in mental health services, substance abuse services, or social work. 

After quietly passing the Senate, however, SB 1221 was amended on the House floor to include a process to allow juvenile offenders as young as 13 years old to be sentenced to life without parole. The thinking behind the amended SB 1221 is severely misguided, moving against a strong national current that has seen many states ban life without parole for juveniles.

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Updating drug courts is important, but Oklahoma must invest in all forms of substance abuse treatment

by | April 17th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (2)

In the wake of the passage of SQ 780, which reclassified simple drug possession as a misdemeanor, legislators and advocates began to discuss how the state should adjust its approach to substance abuse. Among the most pressing questions was what would happen to drug courts: District Attorneys warned that people with addictions wouldn’t opt into the drug courts’ intense 18 to 36 month treatment regimen if they faced a maximum penalty of only a year in jail. Without the “hammer” of a longer prison sentence, the DAs have contended that they cannot force a defendant into seeking treatment, leaving them to return to their addictions and the escalating crime that addiction fuels.

Legislators have considered several proposals to address these issues in the 2018 session, and one of them looks likely to pass. HB 2881 would allow defendants to access drug court programs without the approval of the District Attorney’s office, potentially opening the program for more defendants seeking help. As Oklahoma continues to adjust to SQ 780, evidence from other states provides lessons that our lawmakers should consider: drug courts can work for misdemeanor defendants, and increasing funding for treatment before a person enters the justice system is the most effective way to combat substance abuse.

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Passing revised justice reform measures is necessary but not nearly enough

by | April 11th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

After criminal justice advocates’ hopes of real reform were dashed at the end of the 2017 session, many were hopeful that 2018 would be the year Oklahoma got serious about criminal justice reform. With the governor and legislative leaders expressing their support and key obstacles out of the way, things appeared to be lining up for the proposals put forth last year by Gov. Fallin’s Justice Reform Task Force (JRTF). Although those bills now appear to be advancing towards final passage, they have been weakened to overcome the opposition of District Attorneys. Though the bills are expected to avert most, but not all, prison growth over the next 10 years, the Department of Corrections (DOC) will still require one new prison.

Simultaneously, legislative leaders have also signaled in recent weeks that they could issue a bond to build new prisons at a cost of up to $800 million. While DOC is in desperate need of space to reduce the dangerous overcrowding in its facilities, it is disappointing that this is being considered when there are hugely significant and relatively cheap solutions to reduce the number of people in Oklahoma’s prisons.

While even the weakened task force measures represent a significant accomplishment, it’s far from sufficient to confront the deep problems in our justice system. If new prison facilities are approved, they must be tightly paired with closing old ones. The worst possible outcome would be to increase our capacity to incarcerate more Oklahomans while settling for weakened reforms with no next steps.

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Marsy’s Law is well-intentioned, but be wary of unintended consequences

by | April 5th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

Annaly Sullivan is an OK Policy intern. She is a recent graduate of the University ​of ​East ​Anglia with a masters in Impact Evaluation.

Marsalee (Marsy) Nicholas was stalked and murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Released on bail before the trial began, Marsy’s killer sought out and confronted Marsy’s mother and brother, who had no idea he had been released. Outraged that crime victims and their families had no legal rights that could have prevented this situation, Marsy’s brother went on to campaign for expanded victims’ rights in California and across the US.

As a result, SQ 794, the Crime Victim Rights Amendment, will be on Oklahoma’s general election ballot on Nov. 6th, 2018. Proponents of the ballot measure, which is commonly known as Marsy’s Law, aim to give crime victims more say in the justice process. Marsy’s Law has already been adopted in several other states, and while the idea is broadly popular, it can bring significant challenges that Oklahomans should consider. While there may be value in creating further protections for crime victims, SQ 794 fails to address two major issues plaguing Marsy’s Law in other states: inadequate funding and questionable constitutionality.

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