Weekly Wonk: Measuring success of justice reform measures | Talking health care policy, Medicaid | Breaking cycle of political inequity

What’s up this week at Oklahoma Policy Institute? The Weekly Wonk shares our most recent publications and other resources to help you stay informed about Oklahoma. Numbers of the Day and Policy Notes are from our daily news briefing, In The Know. Click here to subscribe to In The Know.

This week’s edition of The Weekly Wonk was published with contributions from Communications Intern Lilly Strom.

This Week from OK Policy

Changes to Oklahoma’s drug laws reduce criminal charges and prison sentences: Oklahoma’s recent success in reducing our prison population is hard won. Sentencing reforms passed by voters in 2016 and by the Legislature in 2018 have contributed to a 23% drop in the prison population since it peaked in 2016. Though much remains to be done, the Oklahoma Policy Institute has been tracking the effects of justice reform in courts, jails, and prisons as reforms have taken hold and found a steady move towards a less punitive approach to offenses like drug possession and burglary. [Liz Spencer / OK Policy]

Together Oklahoma Talks Policy: Healthy Oklahomans & Health Care: Together Oklahoma, OK Policy’s grassroots advocacy program, on Feb. 12 held a talk on policy and legislative issues regarding Oklahoma health care and the current legislative session. A recording of the talk is available online, and TOK will be hosting additional policy talks on Thursday, Feb. 18 (Safe Communities & Justice Reform) and Monday, Feb. 22 (Thriving Families, Economic Opportunity, and Budget/Tax). [Registration]     

(Capitol Update) Proposed bills again seek to undo will of the voters: There have been some in the legislature, beginning immediately after the passage of SQ 780, who argued that the people did not understand what they were doing, that they, the legislature, know better. This of course is nonsense. Incredibly, this week the Senate Public Safety Committee will hear three bills seeking to roll back the provisions of SQ 780 and return Oklahoma to long-term felony punishments for low-level offenses. [Steve Lewis / Capitol Update]

Policy Matters: Breaking the cycle of political inequities: Our lives are shaped by choices made months, years, decades, or even centuries ago, whether it’s our family history or a larger, shared history. As I was reflecting on Oklahoma’s history during this Black History Month, someone shared with me the story of A.C. Hamlin of Guthrie, who was elected our state’s first Black lawmaker in 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state. This progressive milestone was short-lived, as Hamlin served only one term because his fellow Oklahoma lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment that effectively limited Black voters through voter registration requirements. While this amendment was soon declared unconstitutional, the effect was chilling for generations. [The Journal Record]

Weekly What’s That

SQ 780 and SQ 781

SQ 780 and SQ 781 were ballot initiatives approved by Oklahoma voters in 2016. SQ 780 reclassified simple drug possession and some minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. SQ 781 directed the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to calculate the savings to the state of these changes and to deposit that amount into a fund used by county governments to provide substance abuse and mental health services.

The measures went into effect on July 1, 2017. In 2019, the Legislature passed HB 1269 making the provisions of SQ 780 retroactive, which allowed those convicted of felonies for crimes that became misdemeanors following passage of SQ 780 to apply to have their sentences commuted by the Pardon and Parole Board. An initial group of over 450 inmates had their sentences commuted in November 2019.

Look up more key terms to understand Oklahoma politics and government here.

Quote of the Week

“Hospitals are typically the largest employers in most rural communities. Managed care threatens to squeeze this segment of the health care industry out of business, which could lead to mass unemployment and migration of these professionals to other states, taking with them any state income, sales and property taxes. Simply put, ruining rural economies in the state is no way to achieve ‘Top 10’ status.”

– Steve Hartgraves, President/CEO of Jackson County Memorial Hospital in Altus [The Oklahoman]

Editorial of the Week

Death rate for jail inmates demands attention

Oklahoma’s inclusion in a Top 10 list of states with the highest number of deaths in county jails demands immediate action.

A Reuters News investigation found the mortality rate for inmates at Oklahoma’s largest county jails ranked higher than every state but West Virginia. The investigation, which examined jail deaths from 2009 through 2019, found about half of the 148 inmate deaths in Oklahoma were the result of an illness, and about 25% by suicide.

A report published in 2017 by Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative outlined policies that can help reduce inmate deaths attributable to illness and suicide. Providing medical care to inmates in a timelier manner would reduce deaths caused by illness, and access to mental health and substance abuse programs could reduce the rate of jail suicides.

Court records show a number of inmates being held during a period of pretrial detention died in Oklahoma jails because medical care was denied or delayed. Those records show there are others who took their own lives because they were housed in a jail cell because treatment in a more appropriate setting was unavailable.

Of the 148 jail deaths documented by the Reuters News investigation, 141 were people who were awaiting trial and unable to post bond. Considering the presumption of innocence granted to the accused, it is important that pretrial detention does not become a death sentence.

Pretrial detainees have a constitutional right to medical care, and that care should be provided when the state determines a person must be deprived of his or her liberty rights while awaiting due process.

Oklahoma voters approved two measures nearly five years ago that were intended to reduce jail and prison crowding and allocate the money saved to community level mental health and substance abuse programs. Apparently no money has been allocated for those programs, and mental health of inmates remains a problem.

If lawmakers fail to provide funding needed to provide medical and mental health care for inmates, they must make bail reform a priority. We cannot endorse a system that allows inmates to die at the rate they have at the state’s largest facilities during the past decade.

 [Editorial / Muskogee Phoenix]

Numbers of the Day

  • 773,794 – Number of Oklahomans who use Medicaid to see a doctor and whose care would be managed by private insurance companies if the states privatizes the Medicaid program. [The Oklahoman]
  • 17,414 – Estimated new statewide job creation as a result of Medicaid expansion. [National Center for Rural Health Works]
  • $2.5 billion – Estimated new statewide revenue in Oklahoma as a result of Medicaid expansion.  [National Center for Rural Health Works]
  • 42% – Percentage of Oklahoma adults living in households with children who are very or extremely likely to have to leave this home due to eviction or foreclosure in the next two months in Oklahoma, Nov. 25-Dec. 21, 2020. [KIDS COUNT]
  • $1.1 billion – Estimated new statewide labor income as a result of Medicaid expansion. [National Center for Rural Health Works]

What We’re Reading


David Hamby has more than 25 years of experience as an award-winning communicator, including overseeing communication programs for Oklahoma higher education institutions and other organizations. Before joining OK Policy, he was director of public relations for Rogers State University where he managed the school’s external communication programs and served as a member of the president’s leadership team. He served in a similar communications role for five years at the University of Tulsa. He also has worked in communications roles at Oklahoma State University and the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas. He joined OK Policy in October 2019.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.