Will interim studies create stronger momentum for 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.

The House legislative interim studies for this summer and fall have been approved, assigned to committees, and published. The issue that attracted the most attention is criminal justice reform. In fact, Speaker Charles McCall combined several study requests and will appoint not one, but two special committees to deal with the various criminal justice studies that were approved. It will be interesting to see if much real progress is made next session.

Governor Fallin issued an Executive Order in July of 2016, establishing the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force and charging it with “develop[ing] comprehensive criminal justice and corrections reform policy recommendations designed to alleviate prison overcrowding and reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate while improving public safety.” The membership consisted of representatives of the courts, governor’s office, attorney general’s office, district attorneys, public defenders, private advocate organizations, chambers of commerce, YWCA, Board of Corrections, Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, Department of Public Safety, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and two legislators, Sen. Greg Treat (R-OKC) and Rep. Terry O’Donnell (R-Catoosa).

The Task Force had the assistance of outside consulting sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Task Force issued its report in February 2017 that resulted in about a dozen bills being introduced in the 2017 session. Almost all the bills failed to pass. Most were held up in the House Judiciary Criminal Justice Committee. Apparently, Speaker McCall’s appointment of two House Special Committees is intended to give more legislative input to the proposals, which is a good thing.

If the reform process had a weakness making it difficult to pass the legislation, it was the limited involvement of legislators. Several years ago, Governor Fallin decided she would not approve Joint Legislative Resolutions creating legislative task forces, favoring her own executive orders instead. Over the years many of the most significant and complex legislative measures have resulted from legislative task forces. Agreed to by the governor, and including basically the same array of membership as her executive task forces, but led by the interested and relevant legislators and legislative staff, legislative task forces build a base of legislative support for the recommendations when the study is completed. Last year only two legislators were on the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force. When the far-reaching bills were sprung on the other legislators last February, among about 2000 other bills at the same time, few members knew what was in the bills or had time to really study them.

Usual interim studies don’t allow much time for complex issues either, so one can hope that the two Special Committees can arrive at a place where their work will have broader legislative support. Rep. Scott Biggs (R-Chickasha) who chairs the House Judiciary Criminal Justice Committee usually gets the blame for last year’s results, but the reasons likely go deeper. Yes, Rep. Biggs is a former prosecutor who sincerely sees the system through a prosecutor’s eyes. All legislators bring their own knowledge, experience, and temperament to a task. But the legislative process should give more legislators the incentive and opportunity to be involved and influence the outcome.

I’ve felt for many years that the role of District Attorney (and Asst. District Attorney) is the most important role in the criminal justice system, if not in all of government. Having said that, we’ll never have much reform in Oklahoma if the reform effort is limited by whether it negatively affects the District Attorney’s success in every case in obtaining a conviction and the sentencing result that individual prosecutor thinks is appropriate, sincere as his motives may be. Reform needs to mean tilting the system toward a broader definition of justice. Otherwise our prisons will stay overcrowded with the wrong people.

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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.

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