Criminal Justice

Adam Luck | June 28, 2016

2016 Was a Great Year for Criminal Justice Reform, But There’s More to Be Done

Adam Luck


By Adam Luck

This was a great year in Oklahoma for criminal justice reforms. Not since the passage of Justice Reinvestment legislation in 2012 have we seen such significant measures make it through the legislative process.

In 2016, the legislature and governor eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for first and second felony drug possession charges; they increased the felony property crime threshold from $500 to $1000; they expanded the availability of our community sentencing and drug court options; and they gave district attorneys the authority to file any felony as a misdemeanor.

What do these reforms mean for Oklahoma children? Under these new laws, teenagers who steal a $600 iPhone will no longer have a felony on their records that prevents them from getting a job as adults. Parents with drug problems are more likely to get treatment they need and get sober. And fewer families will be torn apart by laws that emphasize long prison terms for nonviolent offenses rather than rehabilitation and treatment.

All of these reforms are significant, but what should be truly heartening for justice reform advocates was the emergence of a policy-crafting process that has finally broken a legislative logjam that had, in the past, derailed similar legislation. The Oklahoma Justice Reform Steering Committee, as well as its four subcommittees, has become a successful incubator of justice reform initiatives, allowing proposals to be vetted by DAs, law enforcement agents, reform advocates, and legislators. All of the significant criminal justice legislation in 2016 was crafted within the Steering Committee. The process was so successful that several of the reform items mentioned above passed and were signed into law without a single vote being cast against them.

The Steering Committee has worked hard to include voices from across the state and from both sides of the political aisle, all with a focus on improving Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. There was a concerted effort to include perspectives that opposed reform in the past with the aim of producing consensus recommendations that had a shot at making it through the legislative process. The result was a series of long-term negotiations that enabled legislators, law enforcement professionals, and other stakeholders to come together and agree upon the best next steps for Oklahoma.

While the process resulting in the passage of these bills was certainly a success, we are still in dire need of additional reform to address the issue of over-incarceration. We are a long way from declaring “mission accomplished.” These measures are just starting points from which we must move if we are to address the issue of incarceration in Oklahoma. Our prisons are well above capacity at 122 percent, which in practice translates to bunk beds in dayrooms, storage closets, and programming rooms that were used for rehabilitative courses. In the last two years alone we added more than 1,400 new beds to our prison system without building a single new facility.

Additionally, our prisons are dangerously understaffed, giving us the distinction of the highest inmate-to-staff ratio in the nation. We currently have units in our prisons holding upwards of 270 inmates and only one correctional officer assigned to the unit.

Logistical dangers aside, the impact of how we incarcerate reverberates throughout our communities and families in ways seen and unseen. Just over 10 years ago it was estimated that one in 12 Oklahomans has been on probation or in prison for a felony conviction. Considering the impact a felony conviction has on employment prospects as well as access to transportation and affordable housing, that number should be startling. Studies also suggest the children of incarcerated parents are significantly more likely to be incarcerated themselves.

Moving forward, we should reconvene the Oklahoma Justice Reform Steering Committee and subcommittees to assess what to target next. There is also discussion of engaging with the Pew Research Center to start another round of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which would bring their researchers here for close to six months and produce an objective, evidence-based set of recommendations for the 2017 legislative session.

We should continue focusing on sentencing statute changes and begin looking at our juvenile justice system as well as our adult system. Again, we can look to states like Texas for proof that better outcomes can be achieved outside of incarceration. Since 2007, Texas has closed eight juvenile centers and cut their juvenile-incarcerated population by 52 percent. Combined with the reforms to their adult system, Texas has saved an estimated $3 billion, all while maintaining the lowest violent and property crime rates the state has seen since 1973.

Oklahoma took important steps in the right direction this session, but we must continue. Future reforms should follow the successful model established over the last year and continue focusing on sentencing statute changes, as well as begin looking at our juvenile justice system.

Adam Luck serves as policy director for the E Foundation for Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization focusing on six pillars of opportunity for strategic innovation in public policy design: education, energy, exporting, efficiency in government, entrepreneurship, and enduring freedom.

Adam Luck

OCPA Research Fellow

OCPA research fellow Adam Luck is the Oklahoma state director for Right on Crime, an initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation developed to help advance conservative principles in criminal justice reform. An Oklahoma native, Luck is an Air Force veteran and graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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