End of Session Round-Up: Criminal justice reform was not enough of a legislative priority in 2019

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Oklahoma incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other place on Earth. If Oklahoma does not take action to reverse current trends, the state will need to spend nearly $900 million for new facilities to accommodate a growing number of inmates. At the beginning of the recent legislative session, OK Policy focused on a number of key policy priorities to reverse the expensive and unsustainable growth of our prison population. These priorities included reforming cash bail, lowering our court system’s reliance on fines and fees, providing adequate funding for public defenders and courts, adding racial impact statements to any criminal justice legislation, and making the sentencing reforms of SQ 780 retroactive. Unfortunately, the session ended with the legislature passing only one of these essential reforms. Lawmakers must revisit these criminal justice priorities and more next year if it aims to change the fact that Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

[pullquote]“Early in the legislative session, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers with the support of Governor Stitt pledged to address Oklahoma’s criminal justice issues, but almost none of the policy priorities with the potential to reverse the negative effects of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis moved forward.”[/pullquote]

The 780 retroactivity bill was the only criminal justice priority addressed by the legislature this year

A bill making State Question 780 retroactive has been signed into law by the Governor. This was the only criminal justice priority that passed this year. The bill empowers the Parole Board to commute the sentences of nearly 1,000 people currently in prison for simple drug possession starting in December. It also creates a new expungement process that will enable more than 60,000 Oklahomans to remove the lifelong consequences of their felony convictions that would be misdemeanors under current law. However, this expungement process is costly and complicated, meaning most low-income Oklahomans will be unable to access it. Lawmakers should revisit this process next year and provide a hardship waiver for those who can’t afford these expungement costs.

The failure of bail reform and the failure to reduce fines and fees means low-income Oklahomans will have to wait for justice

A historic bail reform measure failed to pass the legislature this year. The bill would have guaranteed any defendant in the state a bail hearing within 48 hours of arrest excluding holidays and weekends. Jail stays vary dramatically between counties in Oklahoma. For example, last year, the median jail stay for people in Rogers County accused of nonviolent felonies was 183 days for those who didn’t make bail. This is more than six months in jail for people who had not been found guilty of a crime. People shouldn’t spend months more in jail in some counties simply because of that county’s bail and pre-trial practices. Many low-income Oklahomans are trapped in our overcrowded county jails simply because they can’t afford bail.

This year’s budget changes the funding structure for Oklahoma’s District Attorney’s offices. Instead of receiving supervision fees and other revenue directly from defendants, SB 1068 directs that money to the General Revenue Fund. That means that District Attorneys are no longer responsible for funding their offices through the fees they collect, as that revenue was replaced by an increased appropriation of over $20 million. This is in keeping with the priority of adequately funding our court services. However, this positive budget development does nothing to lower the burden of fines and fees on criminal defendants. The budget change simply moved the DA fees to the general revenue fund, which does not solve the problem of charging fees to those being prosecuted. We also applaud a 1 million dollar funding increase to public defenders to give them salary parity with District Attorneys. Greater investments in public defenders offices are still necessary to implement bail reform and help defendants who still too often lack adequate access to legal representation in this state.

Governor Stitt also signed a bill that raised the fee defendants pay for a necessary court service. Measures like this directly contradict the Governor’s stated goals. Oklahomans will continue to be incarcerated simply for a failure to pay these fees, and Oklahoma will retain the world’s highest incarceration rate unless this counterproductive fee for service model of court funding is reconsidered next year.   

Justice priorities which weren’t considered this year are critical to reversing negative trends

This year’s failure of justice reform is a wasted opportunity to address problems that need solutions now. One in every 15 adult Black men in Oklahoma is in prison, giving us the highest rate of Black incarceration in the country. Communities of color bear a disproportionate share of the cost of incarceration in this state, but some of these disparities also exist in low-income rural communities. This session legislation designed to provide critical data to understand and resolve these issues with community/racial impact statements never received a final vote.

Early in the legislative session, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers with the support of Governor Stitt pledged to address Oklahoma’s criminal justice issues, but almost none of the policy priorities with the potential to reverse the negative effects of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis moved forward. A critical re-examination of Oklahoma’s sentencing practices, implementing national best practices for probation and parole, modernization of our criminal code and significantly more robust investments in mental health and substance treatment will be priorities that policymakers must address to match the scale of Oklahoma’s prison crisis. The fact that this year’s package of relatively modest reforms failed means that criminal justice reform must gain greater urgency as a legislative priority in 2020.


Damion served as the criminal justice policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute from July 2018 until June 2022. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

6 thoughts on “End of Session Round-Up: Criminal justice reform was not enough of a legislative priority in 2019

  1. One criminal justice reform measure that did pass through the legislative process this year that has not received near enough attention is, the expungement reform bill (SB815). It opened up the expungement process to all offenders including violent offenders. This was a much needed reform in the right direction for former offenders. This will help lower the recidivism rate and increase the amount of former offenders who can start contributing back to society.

  2. I am glad the 780 bill passed. But how long now will it take the Pardon and Parole Board to start the process after December?

  3. I hope your organization will look at lifers who committed crimes as juvenile s. Lifers have the lowest recidivism rate yet are the least likely to be paroled. And serve much longer than others across the United States. Stop the revolving door and let those out that won’t come back.

    1. Informative article. Appreciate the work you are doing to increase awareness in the community. Oklahoma’s incarceration for nonviolent offenders is appalling and embarrassing.

      What actions would you suggest to begin the commutation process for families of young African Americans with life sentences for nonviolent drug charges?

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