Criminal Justice

Ray Carter | November 8, 2019

Parole overhaul, diversion funding sought to address SQ 780 shortcomings

Ray Carter

Supporters and critics alike are calling for reforms and/or new funding to address the perceived shortcomings of State Question 780, a voter-approved initiative that reduced penalties for theft and drug use in Oklahoma, with one lawmaker even advocating “radical” change.

Rep. Justin Humphrey, a Lane Republican who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, recently led an interim study in which he urged lawmakers to break up the state’s corrections system and place prisons in one entity with pardon/parole handled by another. Under his plan, both entities would report to the state Board of Corrections.

“This is radical, okay?” Humphrey said. “But guys, we’re the worst in the world. And we have to do something radical.”

Humphrey’s plan would place more inmates in community supervision, wearing GPS monitors. Those eligible would have to be serving time for nonviolent offenses with no record of prior sex offenses.

Offenders would pay fees to help cover costs. Because diversion programs cost less than prison space, Humphrey predicted the combination of savings and fee revenue would allow for a significant reallocation of financial resources within the corrections system.

If 12,000 people were moved to supervision programs, Humphrey estimated it would generate $480,000 in savings per day and free up $175.2 million to use elsewhere for things like increased worker pay, prison improvements, and treatment programs. He said the proposal could be implemented in a way that significantly lowers the caseload of probation officers.

Under Humphrey’s plan, if a former innate reoffends, there would be immediate and significant sanctions, including possible return to prison.

“We’re going to put in progressive—real progressive—discipline,” Humphrey said. “Real sanctions. Real opportunities to go to jail and go to treatment and go to drug court. By the time you get to prison, you’re going to have multiple opportunities not to go to prison.”

Due in part to the repercussions of SQ 780, officials said many drug offenders and thieves no longer fear major consequences for their crimes.

Rep. Ben Loring, a Miami Democrat who served as a district attorney from 1991 through 1999, said many rural counties have no way to house the influx of new misdemeanor cases created by SQ 780.

“Many places don’t have the jail capacity to put people in jail for misdemeanors,” Loring said. “They can’t go to prison. Under the law, they can’t go to prison for a misdemeanor, and if the county doesn’t have the jail capacity, in essence there is absolutely no punishment for the commission of a lot of crimes that used to be felonies.”

Raymond Aldridge, president of Fraternal Order of Police Chapter 147, which represents many probation and parole officers across Oklahoma, also stressed the facility problem.

“Currently, we have no prison beds available to return an inmate who’s abusing drugs or alcohol and, again, I look at those folks as a threat to our communities,” Aldridge said. “We have no treatment beds available.”

He told lawmakers Humphrey’s proposal “makes sense” and “should be given serious consideration.”

“Thousands of nonviolent offenders could be supervised in our communities with the current number of probation and parole officers employed now,” Aldridge said.

Cleveland County Sheriff Todd Gibson said after adoption of SQ 780 there is now “less incentive for drug offenders to submit to treatment” and an overreliance on trusting addicts to make good decisions.

“A person who literally—and I don’t mean to be overly dramatic here—will literally sell their body for a misdemeanor baggie of meth, who will sell their children for that misdemeanor hit of heroin, they don’t have much self-control or self-motivation to simply say, ‘Yes, I will take treatment if it’s offered to me,’” Gibson said. “Because they’re being controlled by the substance. They’re an addict. They’re sick.”

He said participation in the Cleveland County drug court program has fallen by roughly half since the passage of SQ 780.

The shift from felony to misdemeanor charges for many drug-and-theft crimes has resulted in counties paying to house more people in county jails, Gibson said. In Cleveland County, he said the jail’s expenses have increased by a two-year combined total of $140,000 since SQ 780 became law.

Along with SQ 780, voters also approved a companion measure, SQ 781, which directed that any savings generated by reduced incarceration be redirected to diversion programs and county governments handling a larger caseload of misdemeanor offenses. But officials stressed that no real money has been generated.

“The promise was you were going to get money for treatment,” Humphrey said. “You were going to get money for sanctions. Guess what we got? Big ol’ zippo.”

Andrew Speno, Oklahoma state director for Right On Crime, agreed that SQ 780’s failure to free up revenue has hampered results.

“Oklahoma has taken some great steps as far as criminal justice reform goes,” Speno said. “I wish I could get up here and argue with everything that Sheriff Gibson said and say that, ‘No, no, no, 780 and 781 are working out splendidly.’ I wish I could say that. I cannot. I have to agree with everything he said.”

While the two initiatives were a “significant step in the right direction,” Speno said the promised savings have not been generated to redirect to justice reinvestment efforts like drug courts and mental health courts.

“The key to success in Oklahoma and any state, which has been proven over and over again, is that you must have that justice reinvestment initiative money coming back for these diversionary programs,” Speno said.

He called on the Legislature to provide a “permanent, dedicated funding source” for justice reinvestment programs.

Humphrey said his proposed system, which is based on systems used in Texas and Arizona, would free prison beds for truly violent offenders and will not require increased funding.

“We’re not asking for another dime from the legislators,” Humphrey said. “We just want to keep current budget. We’re not asking for a tax raise. We’re not asking for anything. We’re going to use the money that is already there. It’s just we’re going to use it more wisely and we’re going to use it in a more efficient manner.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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