Three priorities for criminal justice reform (Capitol Update)

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.

There’s a growing consensus that “criminal justice reform” should be an important part of the change we need in Oklahoma. It would free up funds for other priorities like mental health and education. It would blunt the need for new spending for prisons. And it would stop the needless disruption of the lives of thousands of offenders whose families — and society — would be better served by their remaining in the community for treatment or rehabilitation.

Since criminal justice reform, by definition, deals with legal issues, it can get complicated. Some who are currently part of the justice system see it as working for them, so they resist change. Those who want change aren’t always sure what it will take to reach the goals they want. Conflict and confusion are the result. For the past four years, despite strong efforts by citizens, advocates, experts, legislative leaders and the governor, progress has been slow. Here are some suggestions that would yield both immediate and long- term results.

The legislature should make retroactive changes that have reduced previously existing penalties. This would immediately reduce sentences for people who are serving sentences that are no longer lawful if the same offense were committed today. Some of these were changed by vote of the people while other penalties were reduced by the Legislature recognizing their constituents’ desire to rely less on lengthy incarcerations. Retroactivity would also erase felony convictions for people convicted of felonies that would today be a misdemeanor, giving them the chance to live and work as non-felons.

The Legislature should give juries the opportunity to recommend probation when they find an offender guilty. Incredibly, in Oklahoma, to get probation offenders must plead guilty and agree to the sentence recommended by the District Attorney or essentially throw themselves on the mercy of the court by either pleading guilty or waiving a jury trial. Between 90 percent and 95 percent of cases are plea bargained.

Oklahoma is one of only four states in which the jury cannot consider a probationary sentence, and we are the ONLY state in which the jury returns both its finding of guilt or innocence and its sentence at the same time with no chance to consider mitigating circumstances. This Oklahoma law causes most rational defendants to realize they cannot chance going to trial and results in tremendous leverage for prosecutors that can result in lengthy incarcerations.

Another barrier to both fairness and public safety — and more temperate use of prison sentences — is lengthy pretrial incarceration. Pretrial confinement should be used either to protect the public from dangerous offenders pending trial or to insure an offender will show up in court. Instead, with money bail, we have a get-out-of-jail card for those who can afford it. Those who can’t are stuck in jail until they are forced to reach a plea deal with the District Attorney. It’s either make a deal or spend months in jail waiting for trial. Other states are passing bail reform, and Oklahoma should do the same.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Three priorities for criminal justice reform (Capitol Update)

  1. I’m seeing alot of good ideas but we have to stop employers and housing from going back to past lifes for back ground checks. We need better housing options for people discharging from prison. We need to make it easier to stay on the streets then to go back to prison. We are in trouble with the prison system and our Director knows it he and I have talked about these issues through tweets and emails. Im an ex DOC employee and when I was with DOC I seen more crimes committed by the system then people in prison it was disgusting.
    Thank you for listening.

  2. I am glad to see there is a movement to make the lowering of certain crimes retroactive. That will definitely help out on prison overcrowding. As Denver mentioned in his comment, there needs to be a continuing push for more reforms on the “back end” or “trap door” of the system. The convicted felon does not stand a chance to become a good productive citizen in the free society. The deck is stacked against him or her the moment they walk out the prison gate. They need to open up the criminal record expungement process to ALL offenders and shorten the wait time that one has to wait to become eligible to apply for an expungement. Under current law, a violent offender can NEVER apply for an expungement till the days he or she dies.

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