Oklahoma Passes Four Criminal Justice Reform Measures
Oklahoma policymakers are well aware of the challenges facing the Sooner State’s criminal justice system, which include laying claim to the second-highest incarceration rate in the country. Legislators have concentrated on passing reforms over the last several months, and advocacy groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums identified Oklahoma as a key battleground state this year. These efforts culminated in Governor Mary Fallin signing four major bipartisan bills into law on April 27.
The bundle of bills overwhelmingly passed the Oklahoma House, and then cleared the Senate on April 20. House Bill 2472 gives prosecutors the discretion to file misdemeanor rather than felony charges for any crime that does not require offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence. Those crimes which require offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence include felony crimes of violence.
This is an effort to help nonviolent and low-risk offenders get back on their feet and to allow for a more informed and individualized approach to sentencing. House Bill 2753 expands the eligibility for drug courts and community sentencing to a larger number of defendants. This is timely, as alternatives to prison for these types of offenders are more commonly being recognized as a superior solution that results in saving taxpayer dollars and increasing the likelihood of rehabilitation.
House Bill 2479 adjusts mandatory minimum and maximum sentences for felony drug possession. Under current law, mandatory minimum and maximum sentences are two to 10 years for a first offense, and four to 20 years for a second and third offense. The bill changes that to zero to five years for a first offense, zero to 10 years for a second offense and four to 15 years for a third offense. Last, House Bill 2751 raises the threshold to be charged with a felony property crime from $500 to $1,000. All of these reforms affect nonviolent offenders who are a low-risk to public safety, while simultaneously saving Oklahoma taxpayer dollars.
Former Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris attended the bill signing in the Blue Room at the Capitol and shared his opinions regarding the reforms:
“The measures give the state more options to prevent Oklahomans from becoming convicted felons and help them get the treatment they need. It is not soft on crime. It holds criminals accountable without breaking the bank. It is cost neutral to the taxpayer right now,” he said.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said the state needs to take steps to move mental health and substance abuse treatment to the front end.
“With measures like this, I do believe that ultimately we will see a decrease in the prison population while not increasing violent crime, and actually this will have a positive impact, I believe ultimately, on public safety,” he said.
Clearly, these prominent members of the law enforcement community do not feel these reforms would negatively impact public safety.
The governor also voiced support for reforms in her February State of the State address, as the situation in Oklahoma’s justice system continued to deteriorate. She referenced ongoing budgetary issues and failing policies, including overly harsh penalties for low-risk or nonviolent crimes.
“My 40-member task force of law enforcement professionals recommended these proposals, which if fully implemented could prevent thousands of people annually from being a felon for life, which makes it harder for them to get a job and many times leads to the breakup of their family. State prisons are at 119 percent capacity. We just can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s not working,” she said.
ALEC congratulates Governor Fallin and the state legislators, particularly Representative Pam Peterson, who worked tirelessly to make these bipartisan reforms possible. ALEC also recognizes Representative Lisa Billy for her continued leadership and support. Other states facing similar issues with their justice system would benefit from having the foresight to engage in reforms prior to reaching a crisis point.