Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
At the end of last session, one had to wonder if, having passed several criminal justice reform measures, Oklahomans and their leaders would figuratively congratulate themselves, call it done, and move on to other things. It looks like that’s not going to happen. I recently attended a planning session of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform in which national and local voices, including political leaders, from both the conservative and liberal perspective are coalescing around working to take Oklahoma off the list as the number one state for incarcerating its citizens.
In addition, a national and local organization filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tulsa last week challenging Tulsa County District Court’s bail bond system calling it a “wealth-based detention scheme.” Whether you stay in jail pending trial depends, in most cases, on whether you have enough money to pay a bondsman. Add to that a front-page story in The Oklahoman citing instances of apparent injustice caused by the lack of retroactivity of the penalty changes passed by vote of the people in SQ 780. One example was a prisoner serving a 10-year prison sentence for what would now be a misdemeanor.
Just these two issues — a fairer and safer bail bond system and retroactivity of “smart on crime” measures that rely on treatment and restorative justice rather than lengthy incarceration — would be a big help in reducing the social and fiscal cost of incarceration in Oklahoma. Lengthy pretrial confinement disrupts jobs and families and makes longer sentences more likely. And the lack of retroactivity for sentencing policy changes is expensive for taxpayers and is manifestly unjust.
But passage of the reform measures last session was a two-year legislative battle after a year-long governor’s study commission. What passed was real progress but was a fraction of what the governor’s commission had recommended, and the measures were modified greatly at that. Their passage will still fail to reverse the growth trend in our prison population. Ironically, a lot of the opposition to reform comes from people administering our current system of justice that produces over-incarceration. It’s going to take the attention and action of citizens insisting on change to make it happen. Many other states — even Texas — have been able to overcome the resistance to change and reap the financial and social benefits of reforming criminal justice. We owe it to ourselves and to the people caught up in the system.