OK Policy Statement on the Criminal Justice RESTORE Task Force report and need for legislative action

The Criminal Justice RESTORE Task Force report released today identified some positive ideas to address needs within Oklahoma’s justice system, but it lacks bold – and specific – legislative changes to fully match the scale of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. 

Within the report, the task force has asked for an additional year to continue its work. Oklahoma has studied the issues behind its high incarceration rate many times over the past two decades, and it’s far past time for decisive action from lawmakers. 

Despite these years of study and numerous task forces to evaluate the issue, Oklahoma maintains the second highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation. The state also has the nation’s highest rate of both female incarceration and Black incarceration. Oklahomans are sent to prison more often and for longer periods of time for every category of crime, including nonviolent property and drug crimes.

“Oklahoma’s punishment-first criminal justice system is built on laws and policies that fill our prisons, harm Oklahoma families, and prevent access to treatment and resources for our neighbors who need it most,” said Ahniwake Rose, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “As a result, thousands of Oklahomans are trapped in a cycle of arrest, court debt, and re-incarceration. This harms families and drains the state of millions of tax dollars spent propping up an overcrowded prison system.”

OK Policy is calling on Oklahoma lawmakers to pass legislation this session that will meaningfully address the scale of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. Successful reforms to Oklahoma’s criminal justice system should focus on: 

  • Modernizing Oklahoma’s outdated sentencing laws to bring them in line with national best practices
  • Rebuilding the financial structure for the state’s criminal justice system to remove its reliance on fines and fees to fund its operations

To that end, specific actions legislators should consider include: 

  • Reducing sentencing ranges and time served requirements for many offenses
  • Formalizing evidence-based supervision structures, like graduated sanctions, for those on probation or returning home from prison
  • Increasing funding for programs to help insure justice-involved Oklahomans have resources and opportunity to succeed
  • Funding District Courts, District Attorneys, Public Defenders, and other agencies fully through general revenue rather than fines and fees collections
  • Consider a defendant’s ability to pay bail, fines, and fees throughout the justice process and remove incarceration as a penalty for a defendant’s inability to pay court debts

Criminal justice reform can be successfully implemented through targeted legislative action, as we have seen in neighboring states. Texas leveraged legislation to close eight prisons while also protecting public safety and saving its taxpayers billions of dollars. 

Through successful ballot initiatives in 2016, Oklahoma voters sounded a clarion call that it’s time for the state to reform our criminal justice system. Crime rates have remained historically low even after the resulting reforms were implemented. We urge lawmakers to build on this progress by passing legislation to provide equal access to justice regardless of wealth and deploy evidence-based best practices in sentencing.

These reforms will create a fundamentally more just system for all Oklahomans.   

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Hamby has more than 25 years of experience as an award-winning communicator, including overseeing communication programs for Oklahoma higher education institutions and other organizations. Before joining OK Policy, he was director of public relations for Rogers State University where he managed the school’s external communication programs and served as a member of the president’s leadership team. He served in a similar communications role for five years at the University of Tulsa. He also has worked in communications roles at Oklahoma State University and the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas. He joined OK Policy in October 2019.

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