The 2021 session saw passage of economic justice reforms, but Oklahoma’s prison crisis demands greater action

Criminal justice reform was a lower profile priority in Oklahoma’s 2021 legislative session compared to previous years. Despite this fact, several significant reforms aimed at increasing economic opportunity for justice-involved families were signed into law. Lawmakers also created a legal pathway for harm reduction services for the first time in the state’s history and passed modest reforms to medical parole, juvenile expungement, and community supervision. These common-sense policy changes will improve the lives of thousands of Oklahomans, allowing more people to keep their driver’s licenses for essential activities, better maintain employment, and develop a more stable home life upon release to their communities. 

The 2021 legislative session led to the passage of several positive justice reforms  

House Bill 1795 was the most significant reform impacting the justice system that passed this session. This bill dramatically reduces driver’s license suspensions for non-driving violations.  According to data analyzed by Open Justice Oklahoma, nearly 17,000 Oklahomans faced license suspensions just for non-driving, misdemeanor drug possession cases filed in 2019 and 2020 alone. HB 1795 ends these suspensions and several other non-driving offense suspensions, and the bill provides provisional driving access for the tens of thousands of Oklahomans who lose their license annually for failure to pay court fines and fees. These failure to pay warrants are particularly concentrated in low-income communities of color. Black Oklahomans and Oklahomans from Latinx communities are disproportionately impacted by this perverse court funding scheme. HB 1795 will make it easier for families in these communities to drive to work, drop their kids off at school, and simply live normal, productive lives. 

Another positive development this session was the passage of HB 1679, also known as the Sarah Stitt Act. HB 1679 requires the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to identify inmates scheduled to leave custody within nine months of their release and to begin gathering  documentation to help them find post-incarceration employment, including a state ID, birth certificate, Social Security card, vocational training records, work records, and resumes. Release from incarceration without those documents is one of the primary reasons that people who are formerly incarcerated are 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general population, and housing security is the number one factor in determining the likelihood of reoffense. HB 1679 could be the foundation for building a comprehensive re-entry system in Oklahoma for the very first time.   

The 2021 legislative session failed to advance measures to reduce Oklahoma’s prison crisis

Despite some modest legislative criminal justice victories, numerous reforms to meaningfully reduce the state’s prison crisis simply failed to advance. The Legislature’s failure to pass Senate Bill 704, which would have ended the use of so-called “sentence enhancements” for non-violent offenses will cost the state more than  $100 million over the next decade. This means that Oklahoma will continue to have one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation for the foreseeable future, without strengthening public safety. This over-incarceration also disproportionately impacts communities of color with Black Oklahomans more than five times as likely to be incarcerated as white Oklahomans, which gives Oklahoma the highest Black incarceration rate in the nation. 

This session, the Legislature also failed to end the practice of incarcerating Oklahomans for a failure to pay court fines and fees. SB 951 would have significantly curtailed this practice, but the bill failed to advance in the House. Incarcerating Oklahomans who are unable to pay court fees and fines has led to the highest concentrations of failure to pay arrest warrants being located in Oklahoma’s largest communities of color. It also disproportionately impacts poor, rural communities; the criminal justice system extracts more money per capita from rural Oklahoma than the state’s urban centers.  Reforming this system and funding courts through state appropriations would economically lift thousands of families across the state. 

Criminal justice reform should be prioritized in 2022

Despite incremental reforms in recent years, Oklahoma’s prison crisis and the regressive tax of court fines and fees on low-income communities must still be addressed in order for Oklahoma families to prosper. Business investment in Oklahoma is diminished by this state maintaining one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. The wealth of whole communities is squandered when millions of dollars in fines and fees and arrest warrants hang over our poorest neighborhoods, which can trap residents into generational poverty. 

Oklahoma has options to address these issues going forward, and the state is well-positioned to act. Federal relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) can be invested in courts, reducing the burden of court fines and fees on low-income Oklahomans. Medicaid expansion has created the opportunity to expand mental health services to treat Oklahomans and prevent them from entering in the carceral system. Other areas of opportunity include continuing to build our re-entry system, decoupling fines and fees from incarceration, and creating more reasonable prison sentences. Focusing on these opportunities can help lawmakers and advocates leverage the 2022 Legislative session to build a better justice system and safer communities for all Oklahomans. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Damion joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in July of 2018 as the criminal justice policy analyst. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

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