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 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

2 thoughts on “Opportunities this session to bend Oklahoma’s justice system toward justice (Capitol Update)

  1. Hello my name is Jacob Matherly. I was born and raised in Oklahoma. In the year of 2011 I and a friend were stealing copper. (Less than 500$ worth) My friend got electrocuted and died. I was charged with Murder in the first Degree (which was quickly amended to Second degree murder) and had a bond set for 125,000$. My father was very sick at the time and could not work, our family was deep in poverty, and I was the only provider at the time. I spent 10 months fighting this case, were my court appointed attorney tried to railroad me into pleading to manslaughter charges. I refused. After my refusal the jailhouse constantly continued giving me new charges, which led to an overwhelming amount of charges on my criminal record. After 8 long months of fighting this case, the 2nd Degree Murder charge was finally amended to theft of copper, IF I took a plea bargain for 5 years probation. During my final days in the jail, marijuana was found in the unit that I was housed in, and it was automatically blamed on me and I was given another felony charge, and told by my attorney that if I waived my preliminary hearing that I would receive 1 year misdemeanor probation, which I agreed to. After months and months of court dates (were nothing happened) I showed up to court one day and was told that the prosecutor changed their mind and I would be forced to either take 5 years probation, or 5 years in prison. I took the 5 years probation. Which I ended up violating and was sentenced to 4 years in prison, which I completed and discharged. Throughout this huge miscarriage of justice I racked up more than 12,000$ in court costs and jail fees. As a person living in poverty this extremely damaged me, and to this day I cannot secure a good job. I have never been able to pass a single background check because of the excessive charges placed against me. I write you in hope of advise and suggestions. With the new criminal justice reform passed in the state of Oklahoma, I feel that this should directly affect me. I have been deep in poverty ever since all this started, and barely able to survive. I noticed that ACLU is a big supporter of the Criminal Justice Reform, and I know without a shadow of a doubt my Civel Liberties were violated, time and time again. I was forced to move away from Oklahoma due to the fact of the high profile of my case, I was known as a ‘murderer’ my name was tarnished, and there were NEVER grounds to charge me with the Murder charges, it was used against me to tarnish me. I would really like the support of the American Civil Liberties Union. For years I have thought my life was over, that I would never have a chance at a normal life, always having to struggle and accept that I am only given the very bottom of job opportunities. I beg of you, to look into what I this matter. I spent a total of 3 years incarcerated, 3 years that I will never be able to get back. The underlining crime (of theft of copper under 500$) should have never been a felony, as it is classified under law as a misdemeanor, I knew nothing of law and my rights at this time, and having only a court appointed attourney I was never told about the real law. Instead I was constantly lied to and told that I could face life in prison, they tried very hard to scare me, and I did. I remember the day that they were deciding whether to drop the felony murder, as I sat in the courtroom… I lost control of my bladder. I was so scared. Please help me. I am 27 now, and ever since leaving the prison system I have showed upstanding citizen behavior and have had no run ins with the law. Thank you so much for everything ,and I PRAY to hear from you soon !

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