Opportunities this session to bend Oklahoma’s justice system toward justice (Capitol Update)

With the deadline for passage in its house of origin, every major criminal justice reform was passed and moves forward in the legislative process. This is a tribute to the House and Senate leadership, to the authors of the bills and to the committee chairs who took the time to review and hear the measures. A defining issue for this legislature and Governor Stitt’s leadership in his first session could be a remarkable advancement in criminal justice reform. The state has been struggling to leave behind the overly punitive mentality of the past few decades and move to dealing realistically with offenders without robbing tax money from other important state responsibilities.

Just a partial summary will demonstrate how important these reforms could be. First up would be making the simple drug possession felony penalties reduced to misdemeanors in SQ 780 retroactive. There are hundreds of people serving years in prison for what today would be a misdemeanor. Related to that, under current law there is no statutory definition of possession with intent to distribute. This vagueness allows prosecutors to attribute intent to distribute to offenders based on their own reading of the facts, thereby making the possession charge a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

Other bills deal with reform of court costs and expenses charged to offenders and improving supervision of offenders in the community. Too much of the criminal justice system is being funded by costs and fines that offenders can never hope to pay. This leaves them unable to make a new life and continually brings them back to the courthouse and jailhouse on warrants for missing payments on the debt. Another important reform is removing some of the harsh penalties for second or subsequent nonviolent felony offenses that stack years onto sentences. Other bills make the system fairer by allowing juries alternatives other than prison time for sentencing and allowing the accused to learn earlier in the process what evidence there is against him.

One of the most urgent reforms is bail reform. Keeping people locked up in jail awaiting trial for months, sometimes as much as a year, because they don’t have the money for bail is not only wrong but counterproductive. Bail is an expensive and inefficient way to assure people will show up in court. And routine reliance on bail to determine pretrial release sometimes allows dangerous people out of jail simply because they have the money to bail out. Pretrial confinement causes people to lose their jobs and sometimes their families. It also makes preparing for trial difficult and sometimes forces people into ill-advised plea deals just to get out of jail.

Each of the bills will move to the other chamber now, and it remains to be seen if legislators can get the job done. A big yellow “caution” light exists in that all the bills were passed with their title stricken. That means they must return to their house of origin for final passage. There is a lot of work left to be done. It would be a shame to see our state miss this opportunity to “bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”


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.

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