It’s been nearly two years since the passage of State Questions 780 and 781, but legislative work toward reforming Oklahoma’s justice system lags behind the progress made at the ballot box.
Oklahoma’s incarceration rate remains second highest in the nation, 78% above the national average. Without significant changes, the state’s inmate population is projected to grow by 25% over the next eight years. In November, Joe Allbaugh, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, asked for a $1 billion budget increase.
Among the criminal procedure bills currently before the Legislature are twelve proposals, some new and some holdovers from last year, that could significantly decrease nonviolent incarceration rates. Some would do that directly, others by making it less likely that people reoffend after release from jail or prison. Here are the twelve bills to watch:
New Bills in the 2018 Session
- SB 786 – Reduces the mandatory minimum sentence for first-degree burglary and eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for second- and third-degree burglary offenses, and amends burglary of a vehicle from a second-degree offense to a third-degree offense.
- SB 789 – Implements a four-tier sentencing system for money offenses relating to forgery, including making a forgery offense of less than $1,000 a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
- SB 969 – This bill would apply State Question 780 and other changes to sentencing laws retroactively to inmates who were already in prison when the laws were changed. The bill’s primary author, Sen. Roger Thompson, says it would apply to about 850 people and could yield a savings of $9.8 million per year.
- SB 1021 – Permits financially-challenged defendants to receive court-appointed attorneys even after posting bail. Under the existing system, posting bail automatically bars defendants from receiving court-appointed counsel, even if the bail uses all the defendant’s available funds.
- HB 3694 – Reduces automatic arrests and imprisonment from failure to appear for nonviolent misdemeanors. Under the existing system, a failure to appear before the court for a speeding ticket results in a bench warrant that can lead to an arrest and jail time. If this proposal passes, offenders will receive an additional citation and a court date.
Bills Returning from the 2017 Session
- SB 649 – Reduces the amount of extra prison time nonviolent offenders are sentenced to for being repeat offenders.
- SB 650 – Reduces the waiting time for nonviolent offenders to apply for record expungement from 15 to 7 years, and for violent offenders from 20 to 10 years.
- SB 689 – Permits judges to use discretion to waive fees, fines, and court costs if the offender is in a treatment and supervision program. Additionally, gives judges and prosecutors more discretion in sending offenders to such programs rather than to prison.
- SB 793 – Creates a 17-member Corrections and Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force to track the implementation and assess the outcomes of all criminal justice reforms, comprised of various advocates, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials.
- HB 2281 – Amends sentencing procedures in property or drug possession related convictions, changing and reducing both mandatory minimum and maximum sentences for property-based crimes.
- HB 2286 – Allows nonviolent offenders to reduce incarceration period based on earned credits from a series of classes run by correctional facilities, a sort of administrative parole process.
- HB 2293 – Amends sentencing procedures for convictions of drug manufacturing or distribution, establishing maximum sentences at ten years of incarceration for a single offense (eliminates life sentences).
Many of the bills from 2017 have passed both chambers and simply need legislators to reconcile differing amendments. Gov. Mary Fallin has urged the Legislature to send her these bills to sign, and Speaker Charles McCall has said, “Criminal justice bills will move forward.” For the sake of taxpayers, recipients of government services, and all Oklahoma communities, hopefully the Legislature will enact these reforms to reduce needless incarceration and help former inmates become productive members of society.