Where is the focus on sentencing reform? (Capitol Update)

The Criminal Justice Reclassification Council has approved its report that will make 10 recommendations to the governor and legislative leaders for the legislative session. The Council was created in 2018 legislation and given the charge to recommend “the classification of all felonies under Oklahoma law into appropriate categories; appropriate sentence lengths for each class of felonies; appropriate enhanced sentences for crimes committed after offenders have been convicted of other crimes and other appropriate changes that will improve the criminal justice system in Oklahoma and ensure the public safety of its citizens. The legislation requires the Council to make recommendations that will reduce or hold neutral the prison population and to consider fiscal impact statements of all recommendations.

The report for this year will concentrate on the “other appropriate recommendations” and not the classification of sentences. Most of the recommendations are common sense actions that have been known to be needed long before the Council was created. They all have one thing in common: they cost money. Lots of money. Among the recommendations are to support and promote early diversion programs for youth and young adults with emphasis on mental health and addiction treatment; more funding for mental health emergency responders; funding to screen jail inmates for treatment needs; more training for juvenile justice system stakeholders; expansion of juvenile drug and mental health courts; and more funding for re-entry programs, post-incarceration supervision and treatment.

These are all valid recommendations, but one wonders how realistic they are. It appears the social service agencies under the governor’s supervision who would carry out these recommendations are recommending flat budgets or minimal increases for their agencies for the next fiscal year. There seems to be a huge disconnect between the Council’s recommendations and fiscal reality. Perhaps this explains why the legislature required fiscal impact statements for the recommendations when it created the Council.

Instead of a determined effort to fulfill its charge of classifying felonies with an eye toward reducing the prison population, the Council spent the year discussing improvements that should be made everywhere except in court. The result is a list of recommendations for a world in which resources for health, mental health, and treatment programs are plentiful. No one can reasonably deny that social service deficiencies in Oklahoma drive many people into criminal court and that improvements in those services are needed. But where are the sentencing reforms for a criminal justice system that unnecessarily locks up too many people for too long? Our harsh sentencing regime in Oklahoma has huge costs without significant payoff for public safety.


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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