Oklahomans deserve justice reform; there is still time to deliver results this session  

Now that the Oklahoma state legislature is roughly halfway through the 2023 session, there is still time for lawmakers to prioritize criminal justice issues. In recent years, Oklahoma has made some progress in modernizing the state’s justice system and alleviating the pressure on Oklahoma’s prisons and jails. Despite recent progress, Oklahoma still ranks third in the nation for overall incarceration. During the remainder of the 2023 session, Oklahoma legislators have an opportunity to address pressing criminal justice issues, implement measures that will decrease the number of people going to prison and jail, expand on previous initiatives, and provide genuine public safety for every community.

Oklahoma’s reliance on court fines and fees is still a crisis. Lawmakers can help solve it this year.

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. A single court case, from a traffic violation to a felony conviction, can lead to hundreds and thousands of dollars in financial obligations for defendants and their families. Most criminal defendants are indigent and have no extra income to pay court debt. Due to chronic underfunding of state agencies and operations, district attorney offices and courts across the state rely heavily on the revenue generated from these cases. This means vital court services go perpetually underfunded. 

The Cost Administration Implementation Committee established by last year’s legislature has recommended common-sense changes to the court debt collection process that would reduce the number of failure to pay arrests and lead to more collections in the long run. Lawmakers should make these recommendations law by supporting HB 2259, which includes provisions that would give judges the discretion to waive court debt completely for those deemed too poor to pay. 

Lawmakers can also choose to fund Oklahoma’s courts and court services directly from the budget, thereby more reliably funding services and eliminating some fees altogether. HB 1777 as initially filed would have eliminated a host of fees, including the monthly supervision fees assessed on justice-involved people for probation, community supervision, and as a condition of parole. HB 1777 passed the House, but was significantly narrowed in the amendment process  eliminating only one court fee out of the more than twenty that had initially been proposed. As the bill moves to the Senate, lawmakers have the opportunity to restore the original language and send it back to the House for consideration. This would go a long way in reducing the debilitating impact of excessive court debt and create a more fair, reliably funded justice system for all Oklahomans.

Funding for mental health and substance use treatment is long overdue. 

In 2016, voters in Oklahoma approved two state questions together — State Question 780 that reclassified certain drug and low-level property crimes as misdemeanors, and State Question 781, directed savings from reclassification would be invested in county-level, community-based mental health and treatment services. The goal was to reduce the prison population by addressing two root causes of criminal prosecution: substance abuse and lack of adequate mental health services. However, lawmakers have yet to invest a dime into the fund for the specific purposes approved by voters.

SQ 780’s reclassification of simple drug possession and many low-level property crimes as misdemeanors proved to be a quick success, dropping felony filings by more than 28 percent in the first year while the state’s overall crime rates dropped, too. However, seven state budget cycles have passed since SQ 780 was enacted, and the legislature is still defying state law — and the will of voters — by failing to allocate tens of millions of dollars in SQ 781 funding. 

SB 844 would fix that. It would establish the County Community Safety Investment Fund, directing the money saved from SQ 780 to be disbursed to local governments for the development and implementation of programs across Oklahoma. It also tasks the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency to calculate those savings going forward annually instead of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services. The exact amount of appropriations will be a part of budget negotiations later in the session, but every county in Oklahoma would have funds available. SB 844 has passed the Senate with broad support. 

Oklahoma lawmakers should resist the urge to roll back justice reform while investing in opportunities to promote justice and decrease recidivism. 

Despite SQ 780’s success, lawmakers have introduced several bills seeking to roll back SQ 780 by making certain offenses eligible for court-mandated supervision or returning them back to a felony conviction. For example, SB 108 would make a felony of someone’s fourth conviction of simple drug possession, while HB 2153 would lower the felony larceny threshold to $750. Making simple possession eligible for a felony conviction and reducing the threshold for felony property crimes would lead to more people being incarcerated, increased costs to taxpayers, and reduced economic productivity across the state. Lawmakers should resist these measures that undermine the will of Oklahoma voters and have devastating consequences for individuals and communities

Instead of rolling back SQ 780, policymakers should focus on implementing evidence-based policies that address the root causes of crime and promote alternatives to incarceration. These include community-based mental health services that offer various benefits such as reduced law enforcement intervention and incarceration, integration of people struggling with their mental health into their communities, and increased opportunities for work and support. By providing these services, communities can decrease incarceration and prevent people from cycling in and out of jails, emergency rooms, hospitals, and shelters. 

Beyond the policy reforms mentioned before, there are other opportunities for lawmakers to decrease recidivism and promote genuine public safety. For example, lawmakers should also allow providing more educational opportunities for people serving time in prison. SB 11, which passed the Senate with overwhelming support, would remove the ban on incarcerated students receiving college assistance from the Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant Program. This would allow more people who are incarcerated to pursue higher education, which is tied to positive post-release outcomes. Continued investments could make Oklahoma a leader in workforce development and skills training programs for people in prison, contributing millions of dollars in economic growth while keeping people out of prison and rebuilding lives.

Addressing justice reform issues this session will support Oklahoma families and make our communities safer.

Oklahoma families and communities are hurting due to criminal justice issues, whether they have loved ones struggling with substance use disorders or community members saddled with enormous court debts because the state has not fully funded our state’s justice system. Even Oklahomans fortunate enough to not have friends and family involved in the justice system are seeing too many of their tax dollars go to waste by a system that prioritizes punishment over treatment. While the clock is winding down on the 2023 legislative session, time still remains for lawmakers to pass legislation that can stabilize court funding, safely decrease the number of people in Oklahoma’s prisons and jails, support community-based substance use and mental health treatments that voters approved seven years ago, identify — and more importantly fund — solutions proven to put justice-involved folks back on the path to rejoin their families and contribute to their communities.


David Gateley joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in August 2021 as the Criminal Justice Policy Analyst. Raised in Oklahoma, David received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Oklahoma. After graduation, he earned his J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where he wrote on topics such as the abolition of cash bail and the effectiveness of restorative justice. David is a member of the Oklahoma State Bar. He is dedicated to reforming the criminal legal system away from mass incarceration. He lives in Oklahoma City.

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