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Private prisons are bad policy, but they’re not to blame for Oklahoma’s incarceration problem

by | March 12th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (6)

Private prisons have a very bad reputation among criminal justice reformers, and it’s well deserved. In recent years, the ugliest outbreaks of prison violence toward correctional officers and among inmates have occurred in Oklahoma’s private prisons, underlining the dangerous conditions in those facilities. Advocates warn that the profit motive of private prisons leads to cutting costs at the expense of safety and rehabilitation and that the industry’s lobbyists spend big to support punitive justice policies to ensure prisons remain full.

These claims have merit, and no one seeking a fairer, more effective justice system should advocate for more private prisons here or anywhere else. But blaming private prisons for Oklahoma’s deep incarceration problems is misguided, and limited resources should be focused on the important opportunities for progress we have in the current legislative session.

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SQ 780 is already reshaping Oklahoma’s justice system

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

Oklahoma has long been among the most punitive states in the country for drug crimes. For years, severe mandatory minimums and tough-on-crime attitudes contributed to simple drug possession being the most common charge for state prison admissions. In 2016, fed-up Oklahomans passed SQ 780, reclassifying simple drug possession as a misdemeanor and taking away the possibility of prison time for those whose most serious crime was having a controlled substance for personal use.

That law went into effect on July 1, 2017 and is already reshaping Oklahoma’s justice system. An analysis of court records* by OK Policy shows that the number of felony cases filed across the state dropped by 26 percent in the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. This change was accompanied by a smaller, but still significant, rise in misdemeanor cases filed. Together, these trends suggest that the law is working as intended, as simple drug possession cases – one of the most common charges in Oklahoma’s district courts – are now being charged as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

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

by | February 13th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (14)

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.

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Oklahoma’s debtors’ prisons aren’t just a nuisance – they’re an epidemic

by | January 30th, 2018 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

The problem of debtors’ prisons in Oklahoma has slowly come out into the open in recent years. More and more criminal defendants have been unable to pay off the thousands of dollars in fines and fees piled on them by our justice system. When they fail to pay, a warrant is issued for their arrest, and they may spend several days in jail for the crime of being too poor.

Heartbreaking stories of Oklahomans incarcerated for failure to pay their court costs have appeared everywhere from Oklahoma Watch to the New York Times, but we haven’t had a great understanding of just how many defendants are affected. A new OK Policy analysis of court records in five counties* shows that the number of people who are affected is staggering: In one county, as many as two in three criminal cases result in an arrest warrant for failure to pay at some point. It’s yet more evidence that the excessive fines and fees imposed on criminal defendants are creating enormous hardship for the people who can least afford it.

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Oklahomans don’t want to pay what it costs to keep incarcerating so many (Capitol Update)

by | January 26th, 2018 | Posted in Capitol Updates, Criminal Justice | Comments (8)

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.

In preparation for the upcoming session, Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh appeared before the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that are responsible for crafting next year’s DOC budget. He cited Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics showing Oklahoma is again number 2 in overall incarceration of our citizens and number 1 in incarcerating women. We are holding in prison 673 per 100,000 Oklahoma residents. The national average is 397 per 100,000. If Oklahoma incarcerated our people at the national average, there would be 11,020 fewer inmates in our prisons at a cost of $48 per day. Doing the math, if we were just average in incarceration, neither high nor low, the savings to the state budget would be $193 million!

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Our top priorities in Oklahoma’s 2018 legislative session

With the 2018 legislative session fast approaching, today we released OK Policy’s top policy priorities for the coming year.

OK Policy is committed to supporting fair and adequate funding of public services and expanded economic opportunity for all Oklahomans through research and advocacy. During the 2018 legislative session, we will work with lawmakers, community partners, and concerned citizens to promote an ambitious but achievable policy agenda in the areas of budget and taxes, economic opportunity and security, education, criminal justice, and health care.

We have identified the following issues as our top 2018 policy priorities. These are the issues on which we expect to devote the bulk of our energy and resources and to play a leading role in working with legislators in favor of good legislation and in opposition to harmful legislation. Our priority issues were selected based on numerous criteria, including their consistency with our mission, our experience and expertise on the issue, their importance for the citizens of Oklahoma, and our likelihood of success.  There are many other issues on which we expect to conduct research and contribute to policy campaigns, and issues may move on or off our top priority list as events unfold.

You can read a summary of all of our priorities here, or follow the links below for more detailed explanations. As the Legislative session develops, you can also check our advocacy alerts page to hear about ways to take action on these priorities, and check out our advocacy toolkit for more resources to stay informed and get involved during the legislative session.

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Arrests for possession of marijuana spiked in Oklahoma in 2016. What happened?

by | December 19th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (4)

In May, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) released official crime statistics for 2016. While most attention on crime rates is rightly devoted to serious crimes, OSBI noted an eye-catching development in a supplemental report: arrests for drug crimes increased by over 20 percent from 2015. Part of this may be the result of changes in reporting methods, as agencies switch from reporting totals to incident-based reporting. However, when viewed in light of other trends in the report, it suggests that some law enforcement agencies were devoting more resources to low-level drug crimes — possibly at the expense of investigating more serious crimes — in the run up to the November 2016 election. The surge happened as Oklahomans prepared to vote on whether to reclassify simple drug possession as a misdemeanor, which they ultimately did in November 2016. This apparent shift to focus on minor drug crimes reflects a bad case of misaligned priorities.

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Oklahoma’s urban justice systems are set for big changes. But who will fix rural jails?

by | December 7th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (1)

While Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons get most of the attention, nearly all of the important decisions on a criminal case have been made long before a person enters prison. Local law enforcement is responsible for arresting people who break the law and deciding who goes to jail, who receives a citation, and who gets a warning. Local District Attorneys decide who gets charged and how serious those charges are. Local judges and jail officials decide who gets released and who stays in jail as a person waits for their case to be resolved.

Fortunately in the last few years, stakeholders in both Oklahoma County and Tulsa County have begun large-scale projects to study the challenges facing their justice systems and to propose changes aimed at reducing jail populations and making court processes more efficient. The efforts, largely funded and spearheaded by philanthropists in each city, are broad, ambitious, and likely to have deep and positive impacts on the way justice is done in Oklahoma’s two urban counties.

While these efforts should be celebrated, they also raise important questions. Are the issues with our two urban justice systems, as identified by researchers (detailed below), also present in suburban and rural counties? If so, who will champion local justice reform there? As our urban counties embark on their justice reform efforts, Oklahomans must demand that these issues are also addressed for the majority of citizens who live outside Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. 

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New report examines reforms to rebuild trust between law enforcement and communities in Oklahoma

by | November 27th, 2017 | Posted in Blog, Criminal Justice | Comments (0)

Today, OK Policy released a report, “Strategies for Building Trust Between Law Enforcement and Communities in Oklahoma,” that details the challenges facing Oklahoma law enforcement and proposes a menu of reforms that have shown promise in addressing those challenges in jurisdictions across the country. By reforming policies regarding use-of-force and the treatment of race in policing, improving and broadening training procedures, and striving to hire officers that reflect the diversity of our communities, agencies can help to build trust with the communities they serve. Doing so improves the safety of officers and the public alike.

Tension between law enforcement and communities of color is not new or specific to our state, but statistics suggest that the problem could be more severe here compared to many other places. Much of the mistrust stems from a sense among minority groups of feeling unfairly targeted by the justice system as a whole, and police are the front line of that system. Oklahoma has one of the highest overall incarceration rates in the country, and the highest incarceration rate of black men in the country. Although protests over police-involved shootings have not erupted in Oklahoma at the same scale as in other parts of the country, we have much work to do to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

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Oklahoma’s sprawling criminal code could make a felon of almost anyone

by | October 12th, 2017 | Posted in Criminal Justice | Comments (7)

In the wake of the failure of the criminal justice reform proposals put forth by the Justice Reform Task Force this year, Rep. Scott Biggs, the chairman of the House Judiciary – Criminal Justice and Corrections committee, blamed Governor Mary Fallin and others of refusing to discuss the definition of “violent” and “nonviolent” crimes used by some of the bills. After the session, in the lead-up to an interim study on that definition, Rep. Biggs distributed a survey asking respondents to classify every felony under Oklahoma law as violent, nonviolent, or a new, vaguely-defined category created by Rep. Biggs, “danger to the public.”

Governor Fallin, for her part, declined to return the survey, instead sending a strongly-worded letter criticizing Rep. Biggs’ actions during and since the regular legislative session. (OK Policy was also invited to complete the survey, but declined to do so.) But the content and length of the survey are striking in themselves, revealing an increasingly sprawling criminal code that could make a felon out of just about any Oklahoman.

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