Where states are taking real action against mass incarceration

Photo by Andrew Scott.
Photo by Andrew Scott.

With the deadline recently passing for bills to make it out of their initial committees, we can take a look at which criminal justice reform proposals are still alive. While no proposals have emerged to undertake comprehensive sentencing reform, each of these bills addresses the issue in smaller ways:

  • HB 2168 allows Oklahomans with a felony record to obtain job licenses for professions that do not substantially relate to their crime (see a fact sheet about this bill here). 
  • HB 1518 allows courts to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences when they are not in the interest of justice and doing so would not endanger the public (see our blog post about a previous version of this bill here). 
  • HB 1574 changes mandatory life without parole sentence for some drug trafficking convictions to twenty years to life imprisonment. 
  • SB 112 allows offenders convicted of crimes that require them to serve 85 percent of their sentence to earn credits for good behavior before reaching 85 percent. A similar House bill (HB 1117) has been approved by committee but was severely weakened by amendment that applies it only to inmates sentenced in 2016 or later. 
  • SB 211 reduces the maximum sentence for an offender committing a non-violent crime within ten years of a previous conviction to 20 years instead of life.

While each of these proposals could help on the margins, they appear hugely inadequate next to the crisis situation in Oklahoma’s overcrowded, understaffed prisons. At this rate, Oklahoma is not likely to avoid a federal lawsuit or other intervention that forces us to spend tens of millions more taxpayer dollars on incarceration.

Much more can be done, and we don’t have to look far to find it. A new “State of Sentencing 2014” report from The Sentencing Project shows how numerous states are going far beyond Oklahoma in their measures to get a grip on mass incarceration. Real sentencing and criminal justice reforms are happening in both blue and red states, in all regions of the country. Here are a few highlights that show what real reform could look like:

Major reforms in Mississippi

[pullquote]It may not be long before we steal Mississippi’s spot as number two in the nation for incarcerating.”[/pullquote]Mississippi, which is one of only two states with higher incarceration rates than Oklahoma, passed a comprehensive sentencing reform bill in 2014. Notably, the bill reduced a requirement that many offenders serve 85 percent of their sentences before probation or parole would be considered to require just 50 percent for violent crimes and 25 percent for nonviolent crimes. Oklahoma’s own 85 percent requirement was cited in a 2007 audit by MGT of America as the reason for “virtually all” of the projected growth in Oklahoma’s prison population. Meanwhile, a much more moderate reform to allow 85 percent offenders to earn credits for good behavior while still serving the first 85 percent of their sentence is having a tough time in the Legislature.

Mississippi also gave judges more flexibility to order alternatives to prison, such as drug treatment (a similar bill introduced this year in Oklahoma did not get a committee hearing). Mississippi came to these reforms through participation in the Justice Reinvestment Project, but the outcome goes far beyond what little came out of Justice Reinvestment in Oklahoma. It may not be long before we steal Mississippi’s spot as number two in the nation for incarcerating.

Multiple states reducing barriers to employment

Several states took action to give ex-felons a better shot at reentering the workforce and rebuilding their lives after prison. Delaware, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, Georgia, and the District of Columbia became the latest states to “ban the box,” a reform that prohibits employers from asking about felony convictions of job applicants until after the first interview. Banning the box (named after the “check here if you have ever been convicted of a felony” box that appears on job applications) gives job seekers a fair chance to make their case to employers. Recently Georgia became the first Southern state to ban the box, joining 13 other states and about 100 cities and counties.

Georgia, Connecticut, and Tennessee also authorized “certificates of rehabilitation” for offenders who showed good behavior in prison and completed a drug treatment program. The certificates can allow former inmates to obtain professional licenses and reinstate their driver’s license, eliminating major barriers to rejoining society after prison. In Oklahoma, passing HB 2168 could be a good start to ending these counterproductive barriers. Other states have shown us some obvious next steps.

To hear Governor Fallin and legislators talk, the momentum for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma has never been greater. So far, that talk isn’t translating into action on anywhere near the scale that Oklahoma needs. But real reform is happening in some of the most conservative states in the nation. Oklahoma can use that roadmap to catch up.

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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.

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