New task force created to recommend criminal justice reforms (Capitol Update)

It is a hopeful sign that Governor Kevin Stitt has demonstrated his continued commitment to criminal justice reform by creating a new task force called MODERN (Modernizing Operations through Data and Evidence-based Restoration Now) to work until February 2, 2024. The task force is directed to “study, evaluate, and make recommendations regarding policies and programs and propose legislation” to improve the criminal justice system. 

The 11-member task force will include Stitt’s Secretary of Public Safety who will chair the task force; one member each of the House and Senate; the Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; a district attorney; the Administrative Director of the Courts; a sheriff; a public defender; a retired district judge; a person knowledgeable in diversion programs; and a victim’s advocate.

This task force is similar to the RESTORE task force appointed by the governor in December 2019 during his first year in office, except that 15-member group included the attorney general, the director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the executive director of the Office of Juvenile Affairs, and the Director of the Department of Human Services. Originally intended to continue until January 31, 2020, the executive order was amended in May 2019 to end the task force December 31, 2019.

The RESTORE task force issued an initial summary report in January 2020 with several recommendations, including “comprehensive reform of Oklahoma’s criminal code,” consideration of bail reform, creating a “chief culture officer” in the Department of Corrections to change the culture inside the prison facilities, and that DOC pursue using technology to connect individuals with mental health professionals, supervision, and probation services. No further report was issued. 

Unfortunately, much of the oxygen was taken up by the then existing legislatively created Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council that was also working on reform issues. The Reclassification Coordination Council, which was heavily weighted with law enforcement, no longer exists, but at the time it somewhat subsumed the efforts of the RESTORE task force. 

The only recommendation of the Reclassification Coordination Council still under consideration is a proposal to reorganize the criminal code into classifications of felonies with graduated penalties matching the severity of the offenses. The measure has stalled in the legislature for the past two years, but the authors will continue the work next session.

The governor, who promised during his first campaign to work for criminal justice reform, first took office in January 2019, a year when public sentiment ran high for reform. Buoyed by public support, the reform movement produced multiple measures during the 2019 legislative session that could have provided a giant step forward. 

However, these measures were met with legislative fears that they were going “too far, too fast.” It is perhaps an accident of history that the governor, new to office, was not ready to capitalize on the momentum in 2019, and at the end of the session the only bill to pass was a measure making retroactive State Question 780 that reduced simple possession of illegal drugs to a misdemeanor. To be sure, this was a major accomplishment, and the governor has made the most of it by using it opportunely to safely reduce the prison population.

In a way, the MODERN task force might be considered a mulligan, a second chance to make progress. Since 2019, Oklahoma has dropped from first to fourth in incarceration rates at 555 per 100,000 residents, following Mississippi (575), Louisiana (564), and Arkansas (559). By comparison, neighboring Kansas ranks 27th at 286 per 100,000, slightly better than midway among the states. The price we are paying for our overly and needlessly punitive criminal justice system is measured in much more than money. Thanks goes to the governor for keeping criminal justice reform on the agenda.


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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.