Factors could create progress towards treating, rehabilitating criminal offenders (Capitol Update)

At the most recent Board of Corrections meeting last week, Justin Wolf, chief administrator of communications and government relations for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said DOC is hoping to expand its community sentencing program during the next legislative session. Wolf said that community sentencing is an option only for felony prosecutions of offenders, most of whom have substance abuse disorders. 

According to Wolf, if the courts had authority to offer the same programming in misdemeanor cases, it would allow treatment of more people at an appropriate level in the community. Wolf said diversion is always the preferred option where it’s appropriate, which would reduce the number of persons who become convicted felons.

For years, DOC has advocated for more diversion along with more and better treatment, education, and training programs. That’s not surprising. DOC officials see the back end of the criminal legal system and often have no choice but to carry out expensive sentences of incarceration that add little or nothing to public safety and fail to treat and rehabilitate offenders.

There is a convergence of three factors that could lead to real progress. First, drug courts are down in their use as treatment courts because of the passage of State Question 780 that changed simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Most drug courts are felony drug courts. District Attorneys and law enforcement officials say drug courts aren’t effective for possession cases now because a misdemeanor sentence is inadequate to force drug offenders into accepting treatment. 

Second, community sentencing is underutilized. Of the 47,647 offenders who were reported in the latest weekly DOC count to be incarcerated or under community supervision, only 2,405 are serving under the Community Sentencing Act. Overwhelmingly, offenders under community supervision are serving parole or straight probation where they get very little treatment. 

Third, misdemeanor offenders, even those who are addicted and are at substantial risk of reoffending, are not receiving adequate treatment. 

DOC’s recommendation to expand community sentencing to misdemeanors may have come at the right time. If the Community Sentencing Act is amended to include misdemeanor offenses, drug courts could expand misdemeanor sanctions under the Community Sentencing Act. This would provide a continuum of treatment and sanctions using drug court and community sentencing together sufficient to have both effective treatment and punishment. 

Misdemeanor drug courts don’t significantly use jail as a sanction where it might be appropriate because counties cannot afford to pay for it. Since community sentencing is a DOC function, jail sanctions used in drug court could be paid for through state funding or from county funding transferred from DOC because of savings from SQ 780. Originally community sentencing was intended to be a partnership between the state and counties. Perhaps that original vision could be reclaimed. 


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.

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