Stars could be aligning for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma

Steve Lewis
Steve Lewis

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

It looks like the stars could be aligning to do something next session to make Oklahoma’s criminal justice system fairer and less expensive.  According to a story in The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World, the governor’s office has been in contact with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the same organization that helped the state write the Justice Re-investment Initiative (JRI) in 2012.  This follows a study commissioned last summer that recommended many of the same reforms passed in the JRI.

The JRI was supposed to provide more mental health and addiction treatment services for offenders, more supervision for offenders who have served their sentences and a punishment short of returning to prison for parolees that violate rules short of committing a new crime.  This same effort has worked in Texas to dramatically reduce the prison population.  Although the JRI was signed into law it was never funded, and federal funds that may have been available were spurned by the governor at that time.  As a result the law has been largely ignored.  Meanwhile our prison population continues to grow.

Another positive indicator is that Speaker Jeff Hickman, who before he was elected Speaker, was chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Public Safety, is known as one who favors corrections reform.  Senator Don Barrington, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee has shown a willingness to consider changes along with other Senate and House members.  As former Speaker Kris Steele, who pushed through the JRI in 2012 can tell you, criminal justice and/or corrections reform is tough politically.  But with the governor, House and Senate leadership freshly re-elected the time could be right for progress. 

The cause of prison overpopulation is locking up more and more people with lengthy sentences.  Mandatory minimum sentences and the requirement to serve 85% for too many crimes, along with repeat offender enhancements, continue to aggravate the problem.  The JRI doesn’t even deal with these criminal justice issues, considered by many to be beyond reach.  But the JRI and other corrections reforms can go a long way toward a fairer and less expensive system.  Like many reforms, the savings don’t come right away.  When Texas implemented its Justice Re-Investment Act it began by investing millions of dollars into building a treatment system instead of more prisons.  As former Speaker Steele has pointed out, the acid test comes when someone accuses the reformers of being “soft on crime.”  No doubt it will happen.  Then we’ll know if this is the year.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Stars could be aligning for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma

  1. Optimism is a virtue, and I sincerely applaud yours. However, considering our recently re-elected lawmakers, I can’t help being sceptical of them having any affinity to genuine justice or fairness. My hopes and prayers are that they will prove my lack of faith in them incorrect.

    1. I have gone to meet our new DOC president Mr. Patton. I had letters I had written and gotten response back from other DOC employees. He did make copies and read my letters and listened to my story about my husband being incarcerated going on 8 years now. My husband is a good Christian man and has had no write ups since he was arrested.
      My husband is Ronald Box, DOC # 482890. He will soon be 66 years old. I have done everything I know to do before I have back surgery next month. I will be down at least another month and can’t go see him. He was way over sentenced and all I could do is watch in shock how bad our justice system truly is. We are good Christian people and have 2 grown children and 2 grown grand children. I see how over crowded our jails and prisons are but no one who can do anything will. So in the meantime we all just watch the grass grow.
      When I went to his first parole meeting last December, I had written letters to all the parole board members along with many of our friends here in our home town but it was turned down. I’m at a loss as what can or will be done with our system and I only see it getting worse. I know Lawton Correctional Facility is adding another house that will hold more inmates but they have trouble keeping enough officers to fill the jobs. I wonder how long this will continue. I only see it getting worse and many staff members think the same.

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