Early last year, Governor Fallin issued an executive order to establish the Oklahoma Justice Reform Steering Committee to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce the prison population and improve public safety. The committee, composed of the Governor, President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, Speaker Jeff Hickman, Attorney General Scott Pruitt, then-Director of the Department of Corrections Robert Patton, and the Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Terri White, met throughout the year and formed four subcommittees to address issues in policing, treatment, sentencing, and programs and reentry.
The subcommittees consisted of a broad range of stakeholders from various law enforcement agencies, drug rehabilitation and treatment centers, Veterans Affairs, District Attorneys and Public Defenders, District Judges, the Department of Corrections, and reentry nonprofit organizations. After 19 meetings over the course of 2015, the subcommittees brought their recommendations to the Governor and the full committee to agree upon a set of specific reforms that the group could support.
Many of those reforms are now under consideration at the Capitol, and lawmakers appear to be on board with the recommendations. Of the four areas, several bills to come out of the sentencing subcommittee, which have now passed the House of Representatives, are the most consequential:
- HB 2751 raises the threshold of felony property theft crimes, like larceny, embezzlement, and check fraud, from $500 to $1,000. This amount has not been changed since 2001, and 37 states now have thresholds higher than Oklahoma’s, meaning that something as minor as stealing a smartphone can be charged as a felony and go on a person’s permanent criminal record. Past increases in felony theft thresholds in Oklahoma and other states have not resulted in higher property crime rates. But this reform can prevent low-level offenders from having severely reduced life prospects due to a felony record.
- HB 2753 removes some restrictions on drug court and community sentencing. The bill gives judges and district attorneys more flexibility to divert Oklahomans convicted of minor crimes to alternative treatment and supervision programs instead of prison. Oklahoma’s drug courts are already showing strong results in turning people away from crime and addiction without sending them to prison, but only a limited number of Oklahomans have been eligible to participate. The bill would grow this proven program by removing the requirement that a person sentenced to drug court be incarcerated if they do not complete the program and that those who receive community sentencing have a prior felony on their record.
- HB 2479 removes mandatory minimum sentences for simple drug possession crimes. Oklahoma has some of the harshest punishments for drug crimes in the country, with mandatory minimums for a second felony possession conviction punishable by at least two years in prison. Although drug possession is punished inconsistently in Oklahoma, this bill gives judges and prosecutors more flexibility to avoid lengthy prison sentences for low level offenders.
- HB 2472 codifies district attorney discretion to file charges for most nonviolent crimes as a misdemeanor rather than a felony after considering the history, character, and rehabilitative needs of the defendant. Although prosecutors already practice discretion in many cases, putting this more clearly into law may encourage them to take advantage of their ability to pursue less serious charges more often.
The broad coalition assembled behind these reforms speaks well of their chances in the Legislature this year. Having the buy-in of such a wide range of stakeholders should help to avoid the friction that ultimately derailed implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative after its passage in 2012. The Legislature also may be poised to advance smart reforms beyond what has come out of the task force, with bills to reduce criminal fines and fees for those who can’t pay and to create a better process for Oklahomans with felony records to obtain job licenses.
These reforms are supported by many of the same groups are part of the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) coalition, which is the driving force behind State Question 780. SQ 780 would enact reforms very similar to what was recommended by the Steering Committee but going slightly further. It would make all drug possession crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies and, like HB 2751, raise the felony theft threshold to $1,000. In effect, this would eliminate all mandatory minimum sentences for these low-level crimes as well as setting a sentencing maximum of one year in jail.
There is something for everyone to love in the criminal justice reforms on tap this year both in the Legislature and on the ballot. Groups like Right on Crime see them as conservative because they shrink the role of government and save the state money, while groups like the American Civil Liberties Union see them as bringing much-needed justice and compassion to a broken system. Expect cheers from all sides if these overdue reforms make their way into law this year.