Criminal justice reform is paying dividends in Oklahoma. The single largest commutation in American history happened here in November. More than 400 Oklahomans were reunited with their families and communities, and the commutation is estimated to save taxpayers $11.9 million. These are significantly positive developments, but they represent the first steps in the long journey towards getting Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate closer to the national average.
Building on the state’s recent momentum towards criminal justice reform, Gov. Kevin Stitt this spring created the criminal justice RESTORE Task Force to make recommendations that could be considered during the upcoming Legislative session. This task force has the potential to fundamentally alter Oklahoma’s justice system for the better and is expected to release its recommendations in January. The RESTORE task force could bring greater justice to the state’s prison system by strengthening investments in alternatives to incarceration and treatment, reducing fines and fees, lowering the impact of cash bail on the poorest Oklahomans, and creating a dedicated re-entry system.
Treatment should be easier to access than prison
The Governor’s RESTORE task force must continue to encourage investments in treatment and alternatives to prison. This should begin by increasing access to prison diversions like mental health courts, drug courts, and other treatments. The majority of low-income, uninsured Oklahomans struggling with mental illness and substance addiction don’t get treatment. When these issues lead to a crisis many Oklahomans end up in jail. Too many Oklahomans can’t access treatment courts because District Attorneys, rather than mental health providers, are the gatekeepers. Increased access to addiction treatment is already happening in states like Texas. This treatment first model is both more cost-effective and fundamentally more just than incarceration. Determining drug court access based on evidence-based, best practices would serve far more Oklahomans.
This task force should also advocate for more mental health funding alongside adequate funding of the State Question 781 fund. By statute, lawmakers are required to take the estimated incarceration cost savings from recent justice reforms and re-invest those dollars in community mental health care. So far, the Legislature has not funded this reinvestment process. Our prisons are filled with people suffering from the impacts of trauma and struggling with addiction. The majority of these individuals aren’t receiving the treatment they need in prison, and the waiting lists for public services in the outside world can be months long. Lawmakers should provide better funding for community mental health services that would help many defendants to avoid jail in the first place. The RESTORE Task Force must work to upend the state’s failed investment strategy — prisons over treatment — if they hope to get to the root of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis.
Money shouldn’t buy you better access to justice in Oklahoma
The RESTORE Task Force should recommend that legislators build on progress from the last session and reduce the impact of court fines and fees on the poorest Oklahomans. More than 80 percent of court funding in Oklahoma now comes from court fines and fees. Each year millions of dollars in fees are assessed against criminal defendants who are often unable to pay. As the graph below shows, between 2012 and 2018, this court-funding model led to more than $600 million in delinquent court debt. Critical court services are not being funded. This economic system also harms the most vulnerable Oklahomans.
In Oklahoma, failing to pay court debt can cost someone their driver’s license or result in arrest. The resulting jail stay can cost someone their job, their home, and even custody of their children. Arrest warrants due to failure to pay are particularly prevalent in communities of color like North Tulsa, where judges issued more than 20,000 such warrants in 2017. The RESTORE Task Force should end these modern-day debtor’s prisons and ensure equal access to justice regardless of money.
The task force should also recommend that every defendant in each county across the state gets a timely bail hearing with an individualized determination of their ability to pay. There are counties in Oklahoma where a defendant in a non-violent felony case sits in jail for an average of six months before trial simply because they can’t afford to buy their freedom from a bondsman. The task force should mandate automatic release for low-level misdemeanors unless a judge deems the defendant a flight risk or risk to public safety. Commissioners in Harris County, Texas, recently adopted a similar reform and the early results are promising. The bottom line is that Oklahomans don’t deserve less justice than people in other states simply because of their income.
Oklahoma needs a dedicated re-entry system for those returning from prison
The task force should recommend better investments in supervision and services for those exiting prison. For the past three years, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections budget has targeted less than a quarter of its funding on services for those exiting prison or put on probation or parole. The system is critically understaffed and under-resourced. There are only three permanent re-entry case managers for 22 Oklahoma Department of Corrections facilities, and they are expected to work with the thousands of people exiting state prisons annually. This fundamental lack of investment means that too many formerly incarcerated Oklahomans lack the support they need to succeed.
Oklahoma voters should be respected
Oklahoma voters in 2016 sent clear messages by their overwhelming support of reclassifying low-level drug offenses to misdemeanors (SQ 780) and reinvesting resulting savings (SQ 781). In 2018, voters passed SQ 788, legalizing medical marijuana. Oklahomans want fewer people accused of low-level offenses in prison. The task force must build on these positive efforts and make these criminal justice changes more robust. Hopefully, the Governor’s RESTORE Task Force will help advise lawmakers about justice reforms that can build on the positive progress started by voters.
[Image Credit: Derivative work MagentaGreen – This file was derived from: OklahomaStatePen.jpg by Charles Duggar, CC BY-SA 2.0]