Misguided budget concerns are endangering criminal justice reform

This year’s legislative session started with high hopes for the strong reform proposals that came out of the Governor’s Justice Reform Task Force (JRTF). While most of the bills sailed through their first tests of support, many have been severely weakened in recent weeks as legislators grow concerned with their budget implications. But lawmakers should be more concerned about the looming costs of inaction and resist dubious claims that court debt reforms will endanger critical services. Passing the task force reforms is critical to saving Oklahoma’s finances.

Inside the Capitol and across the state, it’s well-understood that we need a different approach to criminal justice. Oklahoma has the second highest incarceration rate in the country, and we are on pace to grow it by another 25 percent in the next 10 years, which would require three new prisons at a price tag of nearly $2 billion. That’s money the state clearly doesn’t have. Even with current funding and inmate numbers, we’re not operating our prisons effectively or safely. The crisis isn’t coming; it’s already here.

Justice reform bills are in big trouble

The solutions that the governor’s task force suggested follow a model that has led to impressive results in many other states: reducing admissions through the front door, increasing supervised releases through the back door, and helping probationers and parolees avoid the trap door into incarceration. The full package of reforms was expected to lead to a 9 percent reduction in the prison population over the next decade, instead of the 25 percent increase under current policies.

JRTF Final Report

The effectiveness of the proposals in their current form, however, is very much in doubt. The front-door reforms are limping: SB 649, a bill that would ease the effects of habitual offender laws that sometimes lead to very lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes, was amended to exclude the bulk of charges covered. SB 786, which was meant to create a lower tier of burglary offense, now only modifies certain mandatory minimum sentences. Both bills will need approval by a conference committee after the changes in the House Judiciary – Criminal Justice and Corrections committee. Two other proposals designed to reduce the duration of prison stays for nonviolent drug offenses never even received a committee hearing. The only bill to advance unscathed is HB 2290, a bill meant to expand the use of drug courts for high and medium risk offenders.

The back-door reforms to the parole process also face an uncertain future. HB 2286 is a wide-ranging bill that would automatically parole many nonviolent offenders, grant earlier release to aging inmates, and require that at least two members of the Pardon and Parole Board have mental health or social work experience. This bill must also be approved by a conference committee, meaning it will likely be revised before final passage.

Finally, SB 689 is a far-reaching bill dealing with probation, included several provisions aimed at reducing the financial burdens that trap many Oklahomans in deep debt after their involvement in the justice system. Under the original language, people who owed money to the courts would be able to set payment plans of no more than 10 percent of their discretionary income and have some debt waived if they enroll in higher education or a workforce development program. Those provisions were removed in the House Judiciary – Criminal Justice committee.

A classic case of penny wise and pound foolish

These bills appear to have run up against the hard reality that we pointed out last year: many of these reforms will require upfront investments to upgrade information technology systems, hire more personnel, provide staff training, and expand services. In all, the Department of Corrections would need nearly $16 million to implement the full package of reforms. About half of that would go to rehabilitative services both inside and outside prisons.

Those investments are difficult to make when the state is in another deep budget hole, but studies consistently show that every dollar spent on drug treatment saves several dollars in reduced crime. Businesses have to spend money to make money later; state legislators should recognize that they must spend some money on services now to save a lot more on prisons later.

The amendment that gutted fees and fines reforms in SB 689 was also apparently based on misguided budget concerns. Rep. Scott Biggs argued that the court debt management provisions in the bill would reduce collections for services like the Victims Compensation Program by as much as $58 million and for law enforcement agencies by more than $20 million. These claims are completely unfounded. District Courts collect about $150 million per year in criminal and civil fines and fees, including about $55 million that is distributed among dozens of agencies outside of the judicial system. Of that total, only $4.5 million per year goes to the Victims Compensation fund and another $20 million for law enforcement. Even if this measure did reduce collections, Rep. Biggs cost claims are wildly inflated.

In reality, the original language of SB 689 is unlikely to reduce collections. Quite the opposite — by ensuring that payment plans are set at a level that encourages compliance, it is more likely to boost revenues. Because we charge criminal fines well beyond most defendants ability to pay, currently only 5 to 11 percent of criminal justice debt in Oklahoma is ever collected. Even though caseloads are growing and we add new fines and fees almost every year, criminal collections for court operations haven’t risen since at least 2003. Meanwhile, growing fees are trapping people in the justice system and making our incarceration problem worse.

Lawmakers are right to be concerned about the budget, but being fiscally responsible means passing the smart, bold criminal justice reforms that were introduced at the beginning of session. Lawmakers still have time to fix the damage when these bills appear in conference committee; Oklahoma should speak out and demand that they do.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Misguided budget concerns are endangering criminal justice reform

  1. Contact Senator Greg Treat (521-5632) and Senator Wayne Shaw (521-5574), the original authors of these Senate criminal justice bills, and tell them to reject the House Amendments and get these bills back to their original version / language. We Oklahomans want real criminal justice reform, not the watered down House amendments. People need to make phone calls or write letters, because emails are too easy to delete, and the legislators receive too many emails for all of them to be read.

  2. When I explained SMASCH to Jari Askins (8 years ago), she said (and it is still very true): “Bill, it’s a great idea, but the folks want more people locked up, and they do not want any kind of reform. “Soft On Crime” still scares every elected official in Oklahoma.” SO, all you claiming to want criminal justice reform, just calm down, ’cause you’re not going to get it. BUT, there aren’t a hand-full of us who know what it would really mean, and you aren’t asking us.

  3. The actual problem is that you incarcerate people that really don’t need to be in there. You say drugs are a problem but where you pull 10 of the street there comes another 50 taking their place so it’s not gonna end, law enforcement has been on it for generations and the only thing that changes is the drugs. You people group up and come up with a plan but your plan fails. Quit locking everyone up and let the economy run itself with those that are trying to earn a living with a good job or schooling. I don’t understand WHY only Oklahoma has such a major problem financially hell look at your overcrowded prisons full of non violent offenders who I believe shouldn’t be in there due to crooked cops, task force and da’s who should be locked up as well with the stuff that they do that don’t ever get looked at. You have bogus charges on people and use them against their spouse to get a conviction. How you charge someone with Possession with intent to distribute when your task force illegally search and seize without a warrant I never seen and I was asked to consent which I refused. But there was no dope even found period to hold me for 15 months then drop charges after my husband took a deal. I was held all that time over a scrape bag. Really? Plus the task force guy Lawson told me from the get go that I was gonna be released. He was never at our house searching. I’m going to college to study criminal law and I guarantee you I will prove each and every thing I speak. Stephens County, is wrong and very crooked. God opened my eyes to see things while I was there and wow crooked isn’t even a close word to what happens there. I’ve just begun along with another 60 or so people ready to step up and speak. God Bless

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