Positive steps for criminal justice reform (Capitol Updates)

OklahomaStatePenSteve 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. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

The legislature this year began the difficult work of changing the Oklahoma criminal justice system to make it fairer, less expensive to the taxpayer and more likely to give offenders a chance to reclaim their lives.  Three bills that demonstrate a change in direction from piling on longer sentences and burdensome collateral consequences of being a convicted felon to a more rational approach have passed.  Two are awaiting the governor’s signature and one has been signed into law.

HB 2168 by Rep. Mark McCullough (R-Sapulpa) and Sen. Dan Newberry (R-Tulsa) was signed by Governor Fallin last Monday.  It provides that persons convicted of a felony may not be denied state licenses, registrations or certificates in certain occupations or professions, including architecture and interior design, cosmetology and barbering, engineers and land surveyors, athletic training, real estate appraisal, physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychology, pawnshops, language pathologists or audiologists, professional counselors, marital and family therapists, and behavioral practitioners simply on the basis of the felony conviction.  The law would not apply to a conviction that “substantially relates” to the occupation or profession or poses a reasonable threat to the public which are both defined in the law.  The new law is limited to a few occupations, but it is a big step in the right direction.

HB 1574 by Rep. Cory Williams (D-Stillwater) and Sen. A.J. Griffin (R-Guthrie) keeps the penalty of Life without parole for drug trafficking when the defendant has two prior drug felonies, but it also allows an option of 20 years to life if the prior convictions are for drug felonies other than trafficking.  For someone with a drug problem it’s pretty easy to rack up a couple of felony drug convictions.  Our trafficking statute is based on quantity found in the possession of the defendant, and the quantities in Oklahoma are relatively small.  If the defendant has the two prior drug convictions and then gets a trafficking charge the mandatory penalty under current law is life without parole.  This statute catches a lot of people within its grasp that are not drug “kingpins.”  HB 1574 would give the judges, juries and DAs an option to recommend or sentence to 20 years to life in these cases, still a substantial sentence.

HB 1518 by Rep. Pam Peterson (R-Tulsa) and Sen. Wayne Shaw (R-Grove) is the Judicial Safety Valve Act.  In cases not including sex crimes, violent crimes, 85% crimes, terrorism, and drug trafficking the judge is allowed to go below the statutory minimum sentence upon a finding by the court that the minimum sentence would result in a substantial injustice in the particular case and the mandatory minimum is not necessary for the protection of the public.  Importantly, the bill also allows the court (excluding the above cases) to put the defendant into an alternate sentencing program such as drug court or women in recovery or others where she might otherwise be excluded by a prior conviction.  The court must state its reasons for departing from the mandatory minimum.  There is also a “sunshine” provision requiring the clerk of the Court of Appeals to post a report annually of the number of times each judge has departed. 

HB 1518 and HB 1574 will allow more rational sentences in a limited number of cases and help appropriately with the burdensome cost of incarceration.  HB 2168 opens opportunities for a better life that were closed.  These were not easy bills to sponsor or vote for, but they have hopefully begun Oklahoma on a path of reform that will pay big dividends in better lives and wiser use of taxpayer resources.

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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.

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