Criminal justice reform in Oklahoma seems to come in small doses (Capitol Update)

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s MODERN Justice Task Force (Modernized Operations through Data and Evidence-based Restoration Now) reported last December that Oklahoma’s court process moves criminal cases to completion too slowly, often leaving defendants in lengthy pretrial confinement awaiting their day in court.

Research funded by the Arnold Foundation reveals people held in pretrial confinement are three times more likely to be sentenced to prison and receive longer prison sentences than defendants on pretrial release.

Pretrial confinement also increases the likelihood of recidivism. The Arnold research found as little as a weekend in pretrial detention increases the likelihood that a low-risk defendant will commit a crime upon release or miss a court date, and that likelihood increases the longer the defendant is detained.

Senate Bill 325 by Rep. Collin Duel, R-Guthrie, and Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, which passed this session, improves the timeline for case completion by amending the Oklahoma Speedy Trial Act. Prior to passage of SB 325, the Act required a felony case to be tried within one year if the defendant is confined in jail.

The consequence of failure to meet that deadline was that the court was required to hold a hearing to inquire into why the case had failed to be completed or tried within the year. If the court found no valid reason for the delay, the case would be dismissed subject to refiling under certain circumstances.

Valid reasons for delay beyond the year include allowing time to determine competency to stand trial, requests for delay by defense counsel, fault of the defendant, unavailability of material evidence or witnesses who would become available within a reasonable time, and others.

There are other reasons that could excuse lengthy delays, some as lax as, due to “reasonable grounds” the court does not have time to commence the trial within the time limit fixed for trial or, there were other cases pending for defendants who were incarcerated prior to the defendant.

In a modest reform, SB 325 shortens the timeline from one year to nine months for the hearing to inquire into the reason for the delay. Shortening the time from one year to nine months might not seem like much-unless you’re the one in jail. It will move up the time when the judges and lawyers must begin thinking about getting the case completed.

The bill also provides the court shall determine “the extent to which” delays caused by the defendant were responsible for the case not being completed. This should clarify that simply asking for a continuance or causing a delay does not automatically act as a waiver of the defendant’s speedy trial rights under the Act.

The bill also provides if the delay beyond nine months is because other cases are pending or because of “other reasonable grounds” the case must be commenced “as soon as practicable.” There are other provisions that could be added to strengthen the Oklahoma Speedy Trial Act, but at least SB 325 is one small dose of reform.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.