The legislature made important steps forward on criminal justice this session. More remains to be done.

Oklahoma lawmakers approved multiple important criminal justice bills during the 2022 legislative regular session. This included steps forward in economic justice, like occupational license changes, earned credits for individuals on parole, and automatic record expungement. The legislature also chose to remove a portion of youth court fees imposed on children and their families, like removing some supervision fees and the cost of applying for an attorney. These steps represent a growing acknowledgement that investments in the lives of people who are justice-involved are good for communities, as well as public safety and our economies.The progress made this session will have a lasting effect on thousands of our neighbors while leading to safer and healthier communities. There remains much work ahead as Oklahoma still incarcerates more people than almost anywhere in the world. As such, lawmakers missed opportunities to help curb the state’s ongoing incarceration crisis or make much-needed investments in county-level mental health and substance abuse services. 

Oklahoma lawmakers made historic investments in economic justice, including Clean Slate

Lawmakers approved some targeted changes to help people who are justice involved, notably in occupational licenses, parole, and youth court fees. Passage of Senate Bill 1691 will help to ensure that Oklahomans are not denied valuable occupational licenses simply because they have a criminal record. Under this law, licensing bodies must take into account factors such as time passed since a conviction before denying someone an occupational license in careers such as welding and cosmetology. It also bans completely the use of an arrest record that didn’t lead to a conviction when determining eligibility for an occupational license. Oklahoma is now considered one of the best states in the nation on occupational licensing for justice-involved individuals, proving that knocking down unnecessary employment barriers strengthens the safety and well-being of our communities. 

Similarly, and building on recent successful parole changes, the passage of House Bill 4369 permits people released early from incarceration to earn credits that decrease the length of time they are required to spend under parole while in the community. These credits are earned by completing certain conditions of parole. Oklahoma joins the majority of states across the country to offer incentive credits for parolees. This is a proven reform that will have a positive impact on recidivism and community safety.

This session lawmakers made a much-needed investment in Oklahoma’s children by passing HB 3205, which removes a large portion of court fees assessed on youth and replaces those funds with budget appropriations. Oklahoma’s children already face disproportionately high rates of poverty and trauma, with 1 in 5 children living in poverty. As the state has disinvested in public services and programs, families are left to fill the gap, creating large economic, social, and emotional burdens. This lack of support has also contributed to more of Oklahoma’s children being pushed into the youth justice system. The burden of court debt can trap children already living in poverty in the justice system well into adulthood, creating lifelong consequences by essentially criminalizing poverty. This legislation is a good first step in breaking the cycle of debt and incarceration, but youth justice must be a higher priority in future legislative sessions. 

This legislative session also saw lawmakers overwhelmingly approve automatic expungement, also known as Clean Slate. The passage of HB 3316 is a historic step forward for economic justice and criminal legal reform in Oklahoma. Joining a growing number of states, Oklahoma lawmakers approved the creation and implementation of an automatic sealing system for some court records. The current paper expungement process is costly, time-consuming, and inefficient; in turn, these barriers keep the majority of eligible people unable to access it entirely. HB 3316 changes that, creating a computer program that automatically seals an eligible court record from public view instead of the current paper petition process, knocking down barriers in employment, housing and education. HB 3316 does not change eligibility requirements, the objection process, or hide the record from law enforcement. The Clean Slate model has been successful in other states, most recently in Utah and Pennsylvania. This piece of legislation will improve the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans, while creating lasting and beneficial impacts for decades to come.

Lawmakers chose not to meaningfully address Oklahoma’s ongoing incarceration crisis this session 

Even with some progress, lawmakers failed to advance any meaningful legislation to solve Oklahoma’s ongoing incarceration crisis.This is most apparent in efforts to change Oklahoma’s felony sentencing guidelines. Spooked by outdated and misleading rhetoric on crime and safety, lawmakers did not advance modest reform aimed at alleviating some of Oklahoma’s harsh sentencing requirements, and the bill failed to advance during this session. SB 1646 would have reduced the incarcerated population by 1,000 and saved the state $17 million in taxpayer dollars over 10 years. Oklahomans serve nearly 80 percent longer in prison for drug crimes compared to the national average and almost twice as long for common property crimes. Punitive and ineffective sentencing guidelines are fueling the state’s high rate of incarceration and must be addressed in future legislative sessions. 

The legislature also debated, but did not advance, several common-sense bills to fix Oklahoma’s broken court funding system, which hurts families and criminalizes poverty. This means that vital courts services will remain underfunded, and hundreds of millions of dollars will continue to be drained from some of the poorest communities in both rural and urban counties. For example, HB 1458* garnered support in both chambers of the legislature, but failed to become law during the budget process. It would have removed some executive agency fees across the board, including fees that fund the Trauma Assistance Revolving Fund, replacing it with steady and dedicated budget revenue. Vital trauma and victim services should have a predictable and adequate funding stream, not based on the fees collected from criminal cases and traffic tickets. 

On that note, Oklahoma lawmakers continue to underfund public safety and leave law enforcement to foot the bill. For a sixth year in a row, the legislature failed to pass a budget that funds the County Community Safety Fund, withholding tens of millions of dollars approved by voters for mental health services and substance abuse programming in all 77 counties. Passed by popular vote in 2016, SQ 781 instructed the state government to reinvest the savings from State Question 780 into a fund for county level programming that diverts people from prison and jail. Lawmakers have refused, leaving local leaders without the resources they need to provide adequate public health and safety. This form of local funding, focused on direct community needs and services, can go a long way in increasing public safety and reducing crime, particularly in Oklahoma’s most rural communities. 

More work is needed in criminal justice 

On the whole, the state still faces significant challenges in the criminal justice system and must be a priority for lawmakers next session. If Oklahoma’s policymakers are serious about reducing crime and protecting communities, more work must be done to fully fund reentry services, alleviate the crushing weight of court fines and fees, and finally tackle changes to the cash bail system. Lawmakers should also prioritize making systemic changes and investments to the youth justice system, including raising the age of prosecution for Oklahoma’s children. All of these changes represent a system of justice that provides more safety, better outcomes, and thriving communities. 

 

*NOTE: HB 1458 was approved by both chambers, but lawmakers changed the bill’s title and language completely in the waning days of session during the budget process. While the original language for HB 1458 was focused on fines and fees reform, the bill’s final title and language was focused on the Health Care Workforce Training Commission. This legislative maneuvering is often referred to as “shucking” a bill. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Gateley joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in August 2021 as the Criminal Justice Policy Analyst. Raised in Oklahoma, David received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Oklahoma. After graduation, he taught biology at Edmond North High School before earning his J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. During law school, he wrote on topics such as the abolition of cash bail and the effectiveness of restorative justice. He was also an avid moot court competitor, receiving recognition in the national Order of the Barristers. Most recently, David worked as a licensed legal intern in the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. David is passionate about reforming the criminal justice system towards less punitive principles of justice and away from mass incarceration. In his free time, David enjoys trying new restaurants, and reading science fiction novels. He lives in Oklahoma City.

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