During Oklahoma’s 2023 legislative session, lawmakers made some positive improvements in the state’s criminal legal system, including investments into diversion programs and significant reforms around court fines and fees. While these changes are commendable, they are only the beginning of what is necessary to tackle the state’s ongoing incarceration crisis. To make a real impact, Oklahoma needs much more substantial reform in the years ahead.
For the first time in seven years, Oklahoma lawmakers finally funded SQ 781
More than seven years after Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly approved funding for county-level treatment for substance abuse and mental health treatments, lawmakers finally allocated funds into the County Community Safety Investment Fund per State Question 781. Lawmakers this spring passed Senate Bill 844, which directed $12.5 million to help support local treatment options. This allocation was based on state savings generated through 2016’s State Question 780, which reclassified some low-level drug and property offenses to reduce incarceration rates. Lawmakers have disagreed for years about how those savings should be calculated, so SB 844 represents a long overdue milestone. The new law mandates that the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) calculate the annual savings from SQ 780, lawmakers then appropriate the funds during the budgeting process, and counties spend those funds on diversion programs that keep people out of prison and jail.
While this is a positive step, lawmakers must provide consistent and reliable funding moving forward for these county-level programs to be successful. A one-time investment will not create the changes that voters approved or that Oklahoma needs. As such, lawmakers must establish an accurate funding formula that captures the true annual savings from SQ 780. This will ensure consistent funding for long-term investments in proven, effective treatment programs.
Now that funding has been allocated for this purpose, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services will be writing the rules and gathering public comment about how it will disperse the funds to counties. This will be a crucial time for advocates, practitioners, and policymakers to work together to create an effective implementation process. This will also determine how these funds are spent moving forward. Further, even though lawmakers appropriated the funds to ODMHSAS, they failed to include specific budget language that required these funds to be spent in accordance with SB 844. ODMHSAS can, and should, release the funds in accordance with SB 844 and the will of voters (SQ 781).
This session saw significant progress around court fines, fees, and other monetary sanctions.
With the passage of House Bill 2259, Oklahoma has a real opportunity to lead the nation in how state courts assess and collect fines, fees, and other monetary sanctions. This law creates a new process for court debt collection and provides clear guidelines for waiving court costs completely if someone is deemed unable to pay. For years in Oklahoma, advocates have sounded the alarm over the state’s reliance on court fines and fees for basic funding — including for court operations, victim services, and trauma care assistance. Criminal defendants in Oklahoma are assessed numerous fees and fines, often far beyond their ability to pay, with nonpayment possibly leading to an arrest. In reality, the state collects only 5 to 11 percent of the costs assessed on criminal cases. This law will help stop the criminalization of poverty, ensuring fewer people are assessed excessive court debt in the first place, decreasing arrests for failure to pay, and likely increasing collections in the long run. That said, to fully solve the crisis, lawmakers have much work remaining to fully address this issue. Important next steps include eliminating court fees completely, lowering criminal fines where appropriate, and replacing the lost revenue with consistent budget appropriations.
Oklahoma is not done with criminal justice reform. More work is needed in 2024.
Despite reforms to Oklahoma’s justice system during the past decade, Oklahoma still faces an ongoing incarceration crisis. The state still ranks third nationally for overall incarceration with more than 21,000 people in prison. In fact, Oklahoma lawmakers this session chose to make the situation worse with new legislation that rolls back some of the voter-approved reforms from SQ 780. The passage of SB 2153 elevates someone’s fourth conviction for simple possession of a controlled substance from a misdemeanor to a felony. This runs contrary to a key provision of SQ 780 — the most significant criminal justice reform in the last decade. As a result, our friends and neighbors who need access to treatment will instead help fill Oklahoma’s prisons, which is the opposite of what voters indicated when they passed SQ 780.
To make a significant impact on Oklahoma’s high rates of incarceration, lawmakers must address the root causes of the crisis. This includes fixing a broken parole system to improve success for justice-involved Oklahomans and setting prison sentences for felonies more in line with national best practices. Oklahoma has some of the most excessive sentencing ranges in the nation. While this contributes to high levels of incarceration, it provides no gain for public safety. People convicted of felonies in Oklahoma spend more time in prison than they would if they were convicted of the same crime in most other states. Lawmakers failed again this year to pass any legislation that would create a felony classification system providing uniform, fairer sentencing lengths for non-violent felonies. A comprehensive examination of Oklahoma’s felony classification could result in reducing prison overcrowding and increasing access to treatment, which in combination would make our communities safer.
Finally, it is past time for lawmakers to address Oklahoma’s broken pretrial cash bail system. Cash bail is a system where individuals accused of a crime must pay a court-determined amount of money to secure their release from jail while they await trial. If they cannot afford it, they must remain in a county jail until their court date, which may be months or years away. This creates an unequal system of justice where rich defendants can afford to await trial at home, while low-income defendants face months of jail time — often losing their job, housing, and children. This crisis is compounded by the high prevalence of injury and death in county jails. The Oklahoma County Detention Center reported 16 deaths last year, making it one of America’s most deadly jails, alongside New York’s Rikers Island and Houston’s Harris County jails. Lawmakers should prioritize cash bail reforms next year, such as eliminating cash bail for all non-violent misdemeanor offenses.
Lawmakers have major opportunities ahead to transform Oklahoma’s justice system
The 2023 legislative session in Oklahoma included some positive strides in justice reform, but there remains significant work ahead. While investments in diversion programs and reforms on court fines and fees deserve recognition, they only represent a crucial first step. Next year, Oklahoma must confront excessive sentencing ranges, the broken parole system, and the flawed pretrial cash bail system. These pressing issues demand lawmakers’ attention next session.