Criminal Justice , Law & Principles

Ryan Haynie | April 14, 2021

Lawmakers can advance criminal justice reform—and federalism

Ryan Haynie

It’s not often that I get to advance two of my favorite issues at the same time. But a recent snag in the legislative process has presented a rare opportunity for me to help advance criminal justice reform as well as federalism—the idea that the federal government is one of limited (enumerated) powers with states retaining broad police powers to legislate health, welfare, and morality.

Last month, I wrote about the positive effect HB 1795 would have for Oklahoma. In short, it would stop revoking licenses for non-driving offenses. That all hit a snag last week when a lot of the positive language was stripped from the bill. The reason: there are fears surrounding the possible loss of federal highway funding if the bill passed.

Why does the federal government care what Oklahoma is doing with respect to license revocations? I’m glad you asked. The federal government never misses an opportunity to tell the states what to do, and licenses are no exception. For years, one of the goals of OCPA has been to fight against the constant intrusion by the federal government into Oklahoma affairs.

In 1990, Republican U.S. Rep. Jerry Solomon and Democratic U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (federal overreach is a bi-partisan issue) joined forces to urge states to suspend the driver’s license of anyone who commits any drug crime. Thus, the “smoke a joint, lose your license” law, as it is colloquially referred to, allows the federal government to withhold a percentage of federal highway dollars if they do not pass laws mandating license revocation for any drug offense—it need not be related to driving.

But unlike most federal overreach, this particular law gives the states a way to opt out. If Oklahoma wants to have control over its licensing laws--which it should--it can keep its highway funding if the legislature passes a resolution stating it does not wish to enforce such a law and the governor certifies to the same. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the overwhelming majority of states have already opted out and Texas has introduced a resolution this year.

If the Oklahoma Legislature passes such a resolution and Governor Stitt submits the accompanying certification, Oklahoma can kill two birds with one stone. It will simultaneously allow for a more sensible policy on license revocations and tell the Biden/Harris administration that it has no business meddling in how we oversee license issuance/revocations in the state.

According to a study sponsored by the Department of Justice, “[e]mployment can make a strong contribution to recidivism-reduction efforts because it refocuses individuals’ time and efforts on prosocial activities, making them less likely to engage in riskier behaviors and to associate with people who do. Having a job also enables individuals to contribute income to their families, which can generate more personal support, stronger positive relationships, enhanced self-esteem, and improved mental health.” Given the importance of employment to keeping people out of prison and the importance of a license for employment, it is imperative that the state only revoke licenses when there is a compelling public safety reason to do so. HB 1795, as originally drafted, accomplished that. If Oklahoma passes the aforementioned resolution, it still can. And it can do so while telling the federal government to butt out.

Ryan Haynie Criminal Justice Reform Fellow

Ryan Haynie

Criminal Justice Reform Fellow

Ryan Haynie serves as the Criminal Justice Reform Fellow for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Prior to joining OCPA, he practiced law in Oklahoma City. His work included representing the criminally accused in state and federal courts. Ryan is active in the Federalist Society, serving as the Programming Director for the Oklahoma City Lawyer’s Chapter. He holds a B.B.A. from the University of Oklahoma and a J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. He and his wife, Jaclyn, live in Oklahoma City with their three children.

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