An update on criminal justice reform in Oklahoma
July 5, 2017
Cody Ray Milner
In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved State Questions 780 and 781. The success of these measures showed a desire among Oklahomans to break the devastating cycle of recidivism and generational incarceration by reducing sentences for nonviolent (particularly drug-related) crimes and placing increased emphasis on rehabilitation and work programs.
At the outset of this year’s legislative session, the Justice Reform Task Force published a report listing twenty-seven specific policy proposals from their yearlong study. State legislators turned these into a package of bills designed to move toward a redemptive justice system in Oklahoma. Three of these bills passed both legislative chambers and were signed into law by Governor Fallin. These new laws will take effect on November 1, 2017.
- Senate Bill 603 – Requires the Department of Corrections to complete a validated risk and needs assessment for each incarcerated individual and guide them towards the most appropriate rehabilitation programs.
- Senate Bill 604 – Enhances law enforcement CLEET certification materials to include training on personal safety planning prior to the pretrial phase of potential criminal trials.
- House Bill 2284 – Expands training for public defense attorneys to better assist defendants with substance abuse or mental health concerns, and training for district attorneys to improve support structure and practices for victims of domestic violence.
Nine other criminal justice reform bills were introduced but either not heard in committee before the end of the session, or passed by both legislative chambers in alternative versions. The majority of these bills are expected to be taken up in the 2018 session and contain most of the remaining policy proposals from the Justice Reform Task Force report.
- Senate Bill 609 – Establishes certification standards for victim assistance professionals, emphasizing victim-trauma trainings based on research from national victim assistance organizations.
- Senate Bill 649 – Clarifies statutory language and makes crimes not listed as “violent crimes” under current law less of a factor for increasing a prison sentence for subsequent criminal offenses.
- Senate Bill 650 – Allows nonviolent offenders’ records to be expunged after five years (currently ten) and violent offenders who are pardoned to be expunged after ten years (currently twenty).
- Senate Bill 689 – Permits the court system to waive outstanding fees, fines and court costs if an offender has enrolled in an institution of higher education or workforce training program up to the equivalent value of the offender’s potential income; changes the process of court-ordered fine payment plans to delay mandatory payment until the offender is no longer under the federal poverty level; and amends the Delayed Sentencing Program for Young Adults to allow for shorter sentences with supervision and workforce training.
- Senate Bill 793 – Establishes the Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force to track the implementation and assess the outcomes of criminal justice reforms.
- House Bill 2281 – Amends sentencing procedures in property or drug possession related convictions, establishing maximum sentences at eight years of incarceration for a single offense.
- House Bill 2286 – Allows nonviolent offenders to reduce incarceration period based on earned credits from a series of classes run by each correctional facility.
- House Bill 2291 – Permits offenders convicted of drug-related charges to shorten their incarceration by 15%, as long as that time is spent under electronic monitoring.
- House Bill 2293 – Amends sentencing procedures for convictions of drug manufacturing or distribution, establishing maximum sentences at ten years of incarceration for a single offense (the current maximum sentence is up to life in prison).
As these measures show, policymakers are working to follow the direction set by voters with State Questions 780 and 781. Yet the advances made this year are only the first steps to make sure Oklahoma’s justice system itself is not a snare that prevents offenders from being reformed and living a productive life. The measures still on the table can be taken up by legislators in the 2018 session. Oklahoma must remain dedicated to breaking the cycle of criminality and giving people the chance to restore their lives and find success in society.