The next criminal justice reforms: Escaping the downward spiral

Photo by David O’Hare used under a Creative Commons License.

Oklahoma’s prisons are in a crisis. The state ranks 1st in the nation for incarceration of women per capita and 4th for men. With budgets not adequate to oversee an ever-growing inmate population, the corrections system is severely understaffed. And all of this incarceration is not paying off in public safety—the state’s violent crime rates remain above the national average.

The justice reinvestment bill passed this year showed some willingness to make progress on this issue, but the relatively marginal scope of reforms and limited resources for implementation mean that we have more work to do. To escape the increasingly unaffordable cost of our prison system, we need a different mentality towards criminal justice—one that doesn’t pursue punishment for its own sake, but instead looks for what works to protect public safety in the most cost-effective way.

In particular, we should end counterproductive policies that push Oklahomans who are trying to escape addiction and contribute to society into a downward spiral. Here are three policies that should be rethought in the next round of reforms:

1. Driver’s License Suspensions

Oklahoma requires mandatory 1-year driver’s license suspension upon a misdemeanor conviction of possession of a controlled substance while operating a motor vehicle (Oklahoma Statutes Title 47, Section 6-205.6). The person would not need to be driving while intoxicated or otherwise posing any threat to public safety. They would lose their license simply for being caught with a controlled substance in their car.

With public transportation very limited or unavailable in most of the state, that’s a serious penalty. Oklahomans could be prevented from getting to work on time and lose their job, and they would be unable to apply for many new jobs without transportation. If they decide to drive anyway, they risk additional fines and up to one year in prison. One mistake that puts no one at risk could effectively end a person’s ability to support herself or her family without breaking the law.

2. Workplace Drug Testing

Even for those who have not been charged with a crime, Oklahoma’s laws demonstrate counterproductive attitudes towards drug use. For example, HB 2033 was approved this year to overhaul regulations dealing with drug testing by employers. A drug test can now be required for any worker who the employer says demonstrated “negative performance patterns,” whether or not there was evidence of drug abuse. Tests can be required following an accident in order to deny workers compensation. Random tests can be required for all workers.

The bill also limits liability of employers and makes it much harder for workers to sue if the employer violates the law by, for example, inappropriately releasing drug test results or requiring drug tests without first explaining the policy. The result is a system that encourages employers to drug test as a defense against having to pay for workers comp or unemployment insurance in the future. It takes away important workplace safety and employment security protections, even if the worker was fulfilling all requirements of the job.

As Jim Priest, executive director of the non-profit Fighting Addiction Through Education, Inc., told NewsOK: “The new laws have subtle underpinnings that drug users are bad people and to get them out of the workplace. But 80 percent of people with substance abuse problems are employed and mostly fine, most of the time. Addiction is a disease of the brain, and you have to look at it as a health issue, not a crime issue.”

3. Harsh Sentencing for Non-Violent Crimes

Finally, one huge factor that has gone largely unmentioned in the discussion of criminal justice reform in Oklahoma is overly harsh sentences for non-violent crimes. As of 1999, Oklahomans served prison terms for drug possession that were more than twice the national average. Over the past two decades, the length of time served by Oklahoma prisoners grew by 83 percent, the third highest percentage growth in the nation. That’s mostly due to a big ramp up from 1990 to 2000. That was followed by a decline in sentence length but an increase in the percentage of sentences served from 2000 to 2009. Oklahoma offenders still serve longer than the national average for non-violent property and drug crimes, despite evidence that thousands could serve shorter terms without impacting public safety.

Many states, notably including Texas, have put much greater resources into treatment and re-entry programs and undertaken sentencing reforms that go far beyond what has been done in Oklahoma. Far from expanding treatment, job-training, and re-entry programs, we have not even restored those that were eliminated during budget cuts of the past three years. And we continue to impose harsh, costly sentences for non-violent crimes.

Serious justice reforms require additional policy changes and a greater investment of tax dollars, but the benefits would be numerous. We could save millions over the long-term, improve public safety, and remove barriers for many offenders and ex-offenders who want to contribute to society and the economy. To achieve this, legislators need to keep up the drumbeat for reforms, and Oklahomans need to adjust a mentality that condemns thousands into a downward spiral for one mistake.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. 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.

One thought on “The next criminal justice reforms: Escaping the downward spiral

  1. having worked in low income apartments for 2 decades it is nice to see some real truth not fear mongering thanks and good luck!

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