Interim study examines ways to reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration levels (Capitol Update)

It’s still early to know if major criminal legal reform is going to be on the legislative agenda for next session. I think there is a sincere desire by legislators to bring Oklahoma’s prison population to a more rational level if they can figure out how to do it safely. But there are a couple of problems (at least) that may get in the way. 

First, there seems to be a feeling that because of the civil unrest during the past couple of years, public sentiment in Oklahoma has shifted away from reform. Add to that the pushback by those who were opposed to State Question 780 and confusion over the implementation of medical marijuana, and some feel the timing might not be right to propose and vote for major reforms. The other problem, there is likely to be a major difference of opinion over the sentencing recommendations of the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council that may suck up a lot of the energy surrounding criminal legal reform. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat said last week in a Senate interim study that he legislatively created the council in 2018 after “seeing not only were we on an unsustainable course financially as a state with the way we were doing incarceration, but we also were not maximizing Oklahomans’ potential and the social value of people being able to get work after a crime, to get drug treatment, to get mental health treatment. We were incarcerating people that I really felt like were in dire straits as far as needing help with their mental health issues or drug issues,” Treat said. 

Testimony was received during the interim study that two analyses have been done on the council recommendations, one by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) and the other by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC). The OCJR analysis concluded the recommendations, rather than moving toward solving overreliance on incarceration, would add 1,000 inmates over 10 years at a cost of $83 million. The ODOC analysis found the recommendations would reduce the average inmate’s sentence by one-half year. It’s unclear to me exactly what that means. The two analyses used different methodologies. 

Regardless of which study you believe, the recommendations could hardly be said to have a big impact on reducing incarceration. The most troublesome recommendation is mandatory incarceration of all inmates for between 10 percent and 85 percent of their sentence without possibility of parole. District Attorneys, who drive sentencing, want to limit the ability of their fellow members of the executive branch to review sentences. In other words, they want to extend their control beyond the courtroom into the pardon and parole board and governor’s office. This feature alone will almost certainly increase incarceration numbers.   

The state has enjoyed a temporary reduction in incarceration due to the rapid commutations for simple drug possession resulting from retractive implementation of SQ 780. But without more effective criminal legal reforms we are likely, in the future, to again be number one in incarceration.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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