A Primer: Oklahoma’s criminal justice system
May 16, 2019
The basic structure of Oklahoma’s criminal justice system follows the constitutional structure of our government. The legislature makes laws, which includes defining crimes and setting procedures for investigating and punishing criminal activity. Executive branch law enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute alleged criminals. The judiciary branch determines guilt and sentences offenders, who are then incarcerated or otherwise supervised by executive branch officials according to laws made by the legislature.
Oklahoma law enforcement agencies are responsible for investigating crimes within their jurisdictions. Each county has its own sheriff’s department and larger cities also have police departments. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol has jurisdiction over all state highways and also provides protection for the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and other high-ranking state officials.
Local law enforcement agencies may request help to investigate crimes from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI). OSBI is an independent state law enforcement agency that houses a nationally accredited scientific laboratory to investigate cases and analyze evidence from crime scenes. According to state law, the agency also holds original jurisdiction for certain crimes including organized criminal conspiracies, computer crimes, and criminal threats to public officials.
The state of Oklahoma also has a separate law enforcement agency, called the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission (ABLE), which enforces state laws specifically pertaining to alcoholic beverages, charity games, and youth access to tobacco.
The Oklahoma state court system is comprised of the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Civil Appeals and 77 district courts. There is one district court for each county in Oklahoma. These counties are organized into 27 judicial districts. Accordingly, there are currently 27 district attorneys in Oklahoma.
Generally, district courts hear the majority of criminal cases. Appeals for criminal cases, if accepted, are heard by the Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the highest court for criminal cases in Oklahoma. Minor misdemeanors or city ordinance violations are heard by municipal courts. Those awaiting trial or convicted of misdemeanors are held in county jails. Individuals who are convicted of felonies are sent to state correctional facilities.
Those charged with crimes in Oklahoma may be prosecuted by district attorneys in Oklahoma’s court system. Defendants may have the right to a public defender if they cannot afford to hire private counsel.
The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals and the State Supreme Court exclusively hear civil cases.
Court’s Funding Structure
Oklahoma’s court system is funded through a combination of state appropriations, fines and fees, and limited federal grants. Many district attorneys largely depend on collecting fines and fees from the accused for their office’s operating expenses. In some cases these offices receive more than 80 percent of their funding from fines and fees.
Many defendants are unable to pay court fees, which may result in jail time that can ironically add additional costs. For instance, some counties charge daily jail fees for inmates. This funding structure has garnered much criticism from criminal-reform advocates because many defendants are simply unable to pay court and associated incarceration fees and therefore are essentially trapped in a debtor’s prison.
Currently, Oklahoma has the highest overall incarceration rate in the United States. There are 24 state prisons (which include five community correction centers) and three private facilities in Oklahoma, together housing 27,000 inmates. Local jails and federal prisons hold an addition 15,700 offenders.
The legislature recently has passed various reforms to curb the rapidly rising incarceration population, specifically by reducing the length of incarceration and other penalties for certain nonviolent offenders. For example, last year’s SB 649 reduced enhanced sentences for certain repeat nonviolent felonies, and HB 2286 streamlined parole for nonviolent offenders who maintain good behavior.
In addition to various legislative reforms, Oklahoma voters passed a State Question 780 in 2016 to reclassify drug possession and certain theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, which reduces the potential sentence for those crimes. This legislative session, lawmakers are considering making this reform retroactive, which would reduce sentences for thousands of current inmates.