What to expect in the next round of criminal justice reforms

Photo by Joe Gratz
Photo by Joe Gratz

In June, Governor Fallin announced the formation of the Oklahoma Justice Task Force, a group that will bring together a wide range of stakeholders to study the criminal justice system and propose legislation aimed at reducing Oklahoma’s high and growing incarceration rate and all of the problems that come with it. If this sounds familiar, it’s because last summer, she established the Justice Reform Steering Committee, a one-year effort with similar stakeholders and nearly identical goals.

The Steering Committee’s recommendations were turned into several successful bills that reduced mandatory minimums, gave prosecutors more discretion to seek reduced sentences, and raised the felony theft threshold for property crimes. While these were good first steps toward a less punitive justice system, Fallin recognizes that more needs to be done. Here’s what we can expect from Fallin’s justice reform efforts in the coming year.

The return of Justice Reinvestment

This year, the Task Force will have the added advantage of technical assistance from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. Pew and its partners in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative have worked with 33 other states on criminal justice reform, providing data analysis, policy development, and public awareness campaigns in support of legislation to reduce incarceration. It’s not the first time Oklahoma has received assistance from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, but the previous round of Justice Reinvestment reforms proposed in 2012 were watered down by the Legislature and have gone largely unimplemented.

Although the new Task Force just started its work, the experience in other states provides useful clues as to what the next round of reform may look like in Oklahoma. Last year, Pew published a scorecard listing 32 reforms that were implemented in at least one state. Oklahoma checked four of the 32 boxes in 2012: Establishing pre-sentence assessments; capping revocation time; requiring reentry supervision; and requiring data collection. Through its reforms this year, the Legislature checked a couple more boxes by reclassifying minor property crimes and reducing mandatory minimums. If voters pass State Questions 780 and 781 in November, we’ll go even further: reclassifying drug offenses and improving substance abuse and mental health interventions.

With so many ways to improve the criminal justice system, where will the reform process go next? Perhaps the most obvious place to start is a renewed effort to implement the provisions of the Justice Reinvestment Act, as recommended in a 2014 report for the governor’s office by Adam Luck, then a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Luck now sits on the Task Force as a member of the State Board of Corrections. His recommendations included setting aside beds for intermediate supervision revocation, improving substance abuse treatment, and requiring post-release supervision. While those steps are as important now as they were two years ago, they would all require significant investments. In the context of our unending budget emergency and overcrowded prisons, they may simply require more resources than policymakers are willing to devote. 

The Task Force will have to follow the money – or lack thereof

For that reason, it may be most useful to look at the “bargain basement” policy options — changes that can be implemented without much money. There are several significant reforms on Pew’s list that meet this criteria.

First, the Task Force should consider revising or eliminating sentencing enhancements. Oklahoma law requires that those convicted of possessing or purchasing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or public park, or in the presence of a child, serve at least 50 percent of their sentence in prison; on the second offense, they must serve 90 percent. Research shows that these laws don’t protect children, but they do exacerbate racial disparities and keep people in prison longer when a gradual reintroduction to society through probation is both less expensive and better for public safety.

[pullquote]“Of the five states with the highest imprisonment rates in 2014, four have expanded medical and geriatric parole since 2011. The fifth — Oklahoma — should follow suit.”[/pullquote]

Second, the Task Force could realize big savings on corrections by expanding geriatric and medical parole. Oklahoma, like many other states, has seen huge increases in medical costs as their prison populations grow older; Department of Corrections health care expenses increased from $34.2 million in 2000 to $59.4 million in 2012. The Pardon and Parole Board has strict guidelines for granting parole based on age or medical condition, and “even paroling an elderly inmate with a fatal condition is often seen by the public as too lenient,” according to former Board chairman Marc Dreyer. Of the five states with the highest imprisonment rates in 2014, four have expanded medical and geriatric parole since 2011. The fifth — Oklahoma — should follow suit.

Finally, the Task Force should look into establishing a performance incentive funding (PIF) program. PIF programs incentivize local agencies to send fewer low-level offenders to prison by sharing the savings with the local agency. In this way, local agencies are rewarded for lowering the number of prisoners coming from their jurisdictions. California’s PIF program, for example, diverted an average daily population of over 9,500 offenders from going to prison and saved the state almost $280 million in its second year of operation.

This idea is especially promising because it may, in addition to reducing overall prison admissions, help to reduce disparity in sentencing between counties. A recent study by the New York Times shows that rural counties send offenders to prison at a much higher rate than urban counties. In Tulsa County, for example, there were 26.8 prison admissions per 10,000 people in 2014; in Okmulgee County, bordering Tulsa County to the south, that rate was more than doubled (61.1 admissions per 10,000 population). If Okmulgee County were provided incentives to keep more offenders in community supervision rather than sending them to prison, its prison admission rate might be closer to Tulsa’s.

It’s crunch time for Governor Fallin’s criminal justice efforts

There are dozens of options available to Governor Fallin’s Justice Reform Task Force, and with Pew’s support, there are good reasons to be hopeful for strong proposals for the next legislative session. While cost is still a big limitation in evaluating options, there are many reforms available that would cost little and could pay big dividends. With only two legislative sessions left in her term in office, the clock is ticking for Governor Fallin to leave a strong legacy of reform. Now is the time for bold strokes.


Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

2 thoughts on “What to expect in the next round of criminal justice reforms

  1. None of the ideas above are bad and will help marginally, the equivalent of caulking and sealing joints while your attic is on fire and your basement fills with termites. The FIP is the best of them, but CA is meaningless as an example if we don’t mention that the state was under federal court order to reach outcomes for which FIP was one means that didn’t have the usual incentives for failure. CA is actually a great example of a state that achieved reform through initiatives taking reform out of the hands of “stakeholders,” the approach pushed by Pew and an approach followed by Speaker Steele in OK’s coming reform vote in November. The latter is a great example of the absolutely necessary prerequisite for any significant reform–a political leader with power backing the changes and sanctioning opponents. CA had the federal courts, TX had a speaker saying “no more new prisons,” NC had a highly regarded supreme court judge, MN had a legislative committee leader, GA has a governor with commitment. OK had Speaker Steele and look what happened when he term-limited out. States without those can cook the reform recipes but the meals rarely rate as good.

    What we rarely hear is how many of the states that have had Pew in (besides OK) have seen failure and/or backsliding; however, THIS excellent article by the Wall Street Journal of all sources goes into excellent detail today, coincidentally:


    IOW, without the strong leadership and possible retaliation against opposition shown in successful states (even for just short periods), OK will likely have these new reform efforts just as a new and uncommitted governor with new legislators enter office. And the window seems to be closing pretty rapidly for the reformers politically, as this article shows:


    and as this article points out the new crime stats to reinforce those shifting public opinions:


    Again, nothing just said negates the value of the small-bore proposals advocated in the blog post above. But the odds for real and lasting changes are much better, if not great, from non-Pew efforts such as Speaker Steele’s. Especially if the powers that be figure out ways to keep him in a dominant leadership position in the state.

  2. Many of these people going into prison are the non violent first time drug offenders, while their counterparts, the repeat offenders are offered drug court and probation, all due to , who and where you are when arrested. I think that it is time that everyone quit accepting this as inevitable. I know that many of the newbies going into prison are extremely intelligent and have tried to no avail to get the help they needed , due to so much inadequacies, too many to mention.. I think that their needs to be realistic measures taken to both insure large savings and equality for sentencing. What is good for one should be for the other regardless of who.
    Many drug addicts, which is what most of these people are , need hope, not, to teach them that they will be branded and alienated for life due to their addiction.
    Novel idea why not test them, see which ones are capable of different roles, such as medical, psychological, counselors, carpenters , electricians, etc. and allow them training and supervision to earn and show their potential helping others while in confinement, and when released ease the burden to society and themselves, that they will be able to fill the shortages of our very, very, very, overloaded system, where, even the ones who really want help cannot find, due to these same shortages.

    Perhaps as in college test them watch them and allow them to spend their sentences productively by helping and teaching others so as to relieve so many problems. I know that you take a young person of much hope that is finally sober and now wanting a change to help the world and give them a chance they could be the most influential in change for our future. Also they will be paying their taxes and even in their personal lives help so many others who would otherwise be left to these same situations.

    Why are the citizens of our state or any other state held such scrutiny when the state agencies have such a mess with their own management, just because these human beings are not even spoken to in any way to see what it is that they have to offer or what it is they can do. Hope could change most of this problem, hope that if they use their punishment time to be able to have a life afterwards WOW really, they might JUST show us they can in fact and will do more than any of these failed attempts of injustice.

    No let us send a sick person to prison for being sick and MAKE them the Criminal you branded them, give them, no hope, no skills, no way to survive without being a criminal. The lunacy of this just escapes me, yet it continues to grow like we are Proud of the fact that our state is so ignorant and tough. At the very least each and every person sentenced to jail for drugs without violence should be interviewed by a few seperate persons, to in FACT have decisions to help our whole system.

    Make prisons mandatory classrooms to teach life skills, adequate coping skills, and allow them the opportunity to alleviate the immense burden to our system in turn saving so much money on the system. In fact I would almost guarantee you there is not a soul in Oklahoma that has not been touched in a large degree by this problem. I know there are thousands who would volunteer their time and mentor, teach and guide these ones that would be candidates. Pretty soon it would be much more exciting and good versus bad would win when they could see rays of hope.

    No one seems to care. Ninety percent of these inmates are not even given 5 minutes to state their case before they are made, (oh, no they are asked if they were forced, and of course not, but if you do not plea you will receive 4-10 times the sentence.) Really people most are scared to death the first time and many would do about anything to change their lives, again, until we send them in to be sure, they WILL NEVER have a chance and are taught by the “real” criminals that if they want to survive they must learn how to be “real” criminals.

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