Two bills that could be valuable justice reform measures (Capitol Update)

Continuing the criminal justice work he began last session, Rep. Brian Hill, R-Mustang, last week filed committee substitutes in the House Rules Committee for House Bill 2477 and HB 2490 that were introduced earlier as shell bills. The two bills were passed out of the Rules committee unanimously and, if enacted into law, would be valuable criminal justice reform measures.

Last year, in passing HB 4369, Rep. Hill announced his “Restorative Workforce Initiative.” Prisoners already receive “good time” credits for compliance with rules while incarcerated. Last year’s HB 4369 now rewards persons recently incarcerated in the Department of Corrections for their good behavior while on parole by giving them the opportunity to earn credits for good behavior and shorten their time on parole. The sooner a person who is in full compliance with the rules can get disentangled from the corrections system, the better their odds for further education and employment.

Continuing his efforts this year, the Committee Substitute for HB 2477 offers an incentive for persons on parole to further their education and enhance their skills. A person would get 90 days credit off their parole for obtaining a high school diploma or high school equivalency diploma, 120 days credit for obtaining a college-level degree, or 60 days credit for a vocational, technical, or career training certification or degree.

The Committee Substitute for HB 2477 also adds good time credits for persons on a suspended sentence, enabling them to get 30 days credit off their sentence for each month of compliance with the rules of probation. If a person can get credit for good behavior inside prison and on parole, it only makes sense to allow credit as an incentive for good behavior while they are serving a suspended sentence outside the walls. 

The other committee substitute filed by Rep. Hill is for HB 2490. Current law allows a judge to review a person’s sentence any time within five years after the sentence was imposed, and if the court is satisfied that the best interests of the public will not be jeopardized, the court may direct that another sentence be imposed. However, if 12 months have elapsed since the initial sentence was imposed, the application for sentence modification must be approved by the district attorney. In addition, the district attorney must approve having a court review at any time if the original sentence was the result of a plea agreement or a jury verdict, which would include nearly all cases.

The committee substitute for HB 2490 would remove the five-year limitation and allow the court to review and modify a sentence any time during the term of the sentence. It would also remove the district attorney’s veto power over the court’s ability to review a case. The current law is a good example of district attorneys’ enormous power over the criminal legal system in Oklahoma. Surely, district attorneys should have the right to object and argue against a sentence modification, and judges would give their arguments great weight. But the fact that district attorneys can currently block a court review before it has a chance to occur extends their authority well beyond where it should lie in a fair and balanced system of justice. 

Rep. Hill’s bills came out of committee with the title stricken, which means they could have a long road ahead, but he should be applauded for his reform efforts. Perhaps they will bear fruit as did his HB 4369 last session.


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.

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