Reforming Criminal Justice: What the latest bill does and what stands in the way

Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Photo by Charles Duggar used under a Creative Commons license.

A criminal justice reform bill, HB 3052, has been making its way through the legislature to great fanfare. More recently rebranded as a “public safety bill,” it is the result of Oklahoma’s participation in the Justice Reinvestment initiative, which seeks data-driven ways to reduce crime and recidivism and ease the burden on overcrowded prisons.

Reforms are direly needed. The state’s incarceration rates are among the highest in the nation. An overcrowded, understaffed prison system is putting both inmates and correctional officers in danger. And all that imprisonment is not paying off in public safety, with Oklahoma’s violent crime rate remaining above the national average.

So are these latest reforms the answer?

As a whole, the bill contains several good ideas, but two serious potential obstacles remain. First, many of the reforms depend on cooperation by district attorneys and judges in each of Oklahoma’s 26 judicial districts. The Oklahoma District Attorneys Association has endorsed HB 3052, but they will need to actively participate in the implementation for reforms to be successful. Oklahoma DAs have already pushed back against last year’s reforms. Their complaints about offenders scheduled for release with GPS trackers led the DOC to significantly scale back the program.

The second obstacle is inadequate funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment. HB 3052 creates new tracks for directing offenders to treatment instead of prison, but the tracks won’t be much use if there’s no destination at the end. That takes money. Like so many other goals for our state, it is highly unlikely that we will see real improvements in public safety if tax cuts remain lawmakers’ number one priority.

Here’s what the bill would do:

Probation and Drug Court Reforms:

  1. Establishes “intermediate revocation facilities” for alternative sentencing of drug court and probation violators. The Department of Corrections (DOC) does not have funds to build new institutions that would serve as intermediate revocation facilities, but DOC Director Justin Jones said they plan to designate beds at community correction facilities to fill this role. Jones said the difficulty will be providing “intensive programmatic services” that the bill calls for at these facilities, since the department does not have resources to expand already overburdened mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence counseling and treatment programs.
  2. Provides an option for a sentence of 6 months at an “intermediate revocation facility” for those who violate the terms of a drug court program or probation. Jones said drug court violators in Oklahoma currently serve an average of three years, so an alternative sentence of 6 months would help reduce incarceration if it was widely adopted. However, the impact depends on the cooperation of Oklahoma judges and district attorneys, because the law makes the sentence a new option for the courts, not a mandate. Jones gave the example of a law passed in the 1980s that provided an option for weekend and nighttime incarceration. The option is still on the books but has been used rarely if at all.
  3. Requires a probation period of at least 9-months to be included with any sentence and instructs DOC to develop a sentencing matrix for probation violations. The mandatory probation time is aimed at reducing recidivism, and the sentencing matrix is intended to ensure that sanctions for probation violations are applied consistently and fairly. To be most effective, the added probation time would need to be paired with more treatment and reintegration resources. It remains to be seen whether the legislature will provide funds needed to offer these services.

Sentencing Reforms:

Click for larger.

  1. Allow credits for time off a sentence to be earned during “85 percent time.” [UPDATE: This provision has been taken out by a Senate committee.] For the most serious crimes in Oklahoma, offenders are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. This section clarifies that they can earn time off for good behavior during that 85 percent time, but the credits will still not go into effect until at least 85 percent of the sentence is served. A 2007 audit by MGT of America cited the rise in 85 percent sentencing as the reason for “virtually all” of the projected growth in Oklahoma’s prison population. Last year’s corrections reform bill, HB 2131, did finally implement one of MGT’s recommendations to make 85 percent offenders eligible for community sentencing.
  2. Reduces sentence for a second drug conviction in some circumstances. A second conviction involving any Schedule III, IV, or V substance or marijuana that is not during probation or within ten years of a previous conviction would be punishable by a sentence of one to five years, instead of the current two to ten years. Because it is a relatively minor change to a small subset of convictions, this is unlikely to have a major effect on prison populations.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment Reforms:

  1. Requires assessment of anyone convicted of a felony for mental health and substance abuse problems. The assessments will provide information for courts to consider in sentencing, and anyone who is found to need treatment will be referred to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Yet treatment programs inside prisons have been slashed due to budget cuts, and DMHSAS is currently able to serve only about one-third of the Oklahomans who need treatment. We can identify who needs treatment, but little will be accomplished without more resources to provide it.
  2. Increases the eligibility for sentence modification from 12 to 24 months after conviction.  This section is in response to long waiting lists that often make it impossible for offenders to get into treatment programs within 12 months of sentencing. It does not provide any funding to offer more treatment in order to shorten the waiting lists. District attorneys would have to approve any sentence modification after 12 months, which may create a conflict of interest since their role in the justice system is to advocate against defendants. Overseeing a modification could also create more work for the DA’s office compared to reinstating the original sentence.

Law Enforcement Reforms:

  1. Creates the Justice Reinvestment Grant Program. If fully funded, this program would provide about $5 million per year to local law enforcement agencies for new strategies to combat violent crime. It would give preference to initiatives that emphasize use of crime mapping technology, community engagement, and multi-jurisdictional cooperation.

Oklahoma’s over-incarceration problem is three decades in the making, and there is no easy fix. HB 3052 has some potential to reduce incarceration while improving public safety in our state, but only as part of a larger effort, which includes the entire justice system, mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, and lawmakers who keep up the push for smart reforms.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gene Perry joined OK Policy in January 2011. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism. Gene also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, is a trustee of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has chaired the communications advisory committee for the State Priorities Partnership, a nationwide network of state fiscal policy think tanks. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Kara Joy McKee, who is a Tulsa City Councilor.

11 thoughts on “Reforming Criminal Justice: What the latest bill does and what stands in the way

  1. This excellent analysis leaves a couple of items unsaid. For one, as it notes, the state’s DOC won’t be able to provide the intermediate revocation facilities necessary, but the private prison industry will. That industry does not benefit from reduced numbers of inmates or dollars spent on them so you can expect this area to grow as lobbyists work the legislature in the future. For another, because of the unlikelihood that DAs and judges will significantly change their behavior that you cite, the additional costs now added to DOC because of the increased supervision demands and possible new treatment to be required make it very possible that the state will be spending more money at the end of the decade than it would have without the effort. The “savings” lauded for the reform at the onset were premised on the belief that the state would fund projected increases in prison population, an amount that was almost twice what the state increased in DOC funding the previous decade with even more actual prison growth. IOW, the amount used to justify action was never likely to be the actual amount the state would spend, especially now in light of the tax cuts you mention. Finally, there is no effective oversight of any of this in the bill. The Attorney General is supposed to oversee the law enforcement funding, but has no experience or credibility in performing the program evaluation that will be required to ensure that the new funding doesn’t just offset already existing expenditures under threat from other budget losses. “Savings” will not be audited in any way and, if they occur, will, as the post notes, get sucked into tax cuts.

    But please do not take these notes as criticisms of the piece. It is the first and only good job I’ve seen on this bill. When the legislature cuts out the drug and 85% items that can reduce prison populations, albeit very weakly, I hope you all follow up with what the bill will likely now cost the state if the rest is fully implemented,including the contracts to Avalon and the other private prison providers who are among the chief beneficiaries of what will happen. Keep up the good work.

  2. This whole reform is plain stupid! I have a boyfriend who grew a couple plants. Wasn’t smoking pot. He did it because he couldn’t find a job and was being kicked off welfare. He thought about selling it but he couldn’t. He started ripping the plants out of the ground. He left for the store to buy trash bags and as soon as he pulled in the cops were there waiting. 10 years my friends! Yes, it was a stupid idea but he couldn’t do it. The cops seen all the plants in the trash that he was ripping out as well. He has completed Keys to life program and totally regrets what he did. Not an addict. Just scared of losing the little stuff he actually had in his life like a car and house. Not a bad guy and yet he sits in prison. No harm to the community, regretful, and one hell of a great worker. Judge Glassco said no to letting him out after his drug program. He doesn’t even care. He saw murders and rapist serve 6 months…not fair and Oklahoma Judges, DA, Governor, suck!! Ruining peoples lives over something that grows wild in the woods. Shame on you! I believe when he tells me that this will not ever happen again…He is very sad.

  3. My brother was accused of Identify theft. He was given a POA which a judge admitted in in court as good. He was given permission by his stepfather to use this credit card. My brother had the address changed to his so he could make payments on this credit card. My stepsister filed false charges on him after becoming his guardian. This credit card was used prior to her becoming guardian and still the courts found him guilty, sentencing him 8yr. in and 12yr. out (this is because of his three prior DUI’s of which he served his time for) the court system including Judges, Da’s, court appointed laywers and etal…don’t care and yes this is corrupted kangroo courts.

  4. Our criminal justice needs to be corrected. I thought that there was a bill to put monitors on inmates who committed non-violent offenses, and let them be released with a probation officer overseeing them. This is cost effective. Why has this not been implemented?

    1. The GPS tracking program was partially implemented, but the Department of Corrections significantly scaled back how many would be eligible for it after district attorneys and companies that manage halfway houses complained.

      1. Can you tell me what does it benefit the DAs for the inmates to go to prison and stay in prison? How many empty lives are they creating by doing this? Have a son who is looking at going back to prison over taking one prescribed opiate after being hurt on the job he was fortunate enough to obtain after spending 2-3 years in the “system”. We need to push the fact that non-violent offenders not go back to prison for minor offenses. Any one with any further suggestions or is this not related to you and you have no children suffering through this?

  5. The 85% rule is to much. These DA and judges are giving people sentences that are longer than a murderer simple because they had been in trouble before I think it’s wrong and should be changed

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.