Justice reform gains needed
Early in the second half of the 2019 legislative session, additional criminal justice reform — something touted by members on both sides of the aisle — remains a work in progress. Here’s hoping the lack of significant movement thus far doesn’t produce minimal results later.
In remarks last week, House Majority Leader Jon Echols said the Legislature has at least 30 bills dealing with criminal justice reform, and that he and others want more than simply sentencing reform. Also needed, he said, is a focus on rehabilitation and treatment.
All three are needed if Oklahoma is to relinquish its hold as the state that incarcerates more people, per capita, than any other state.
A sentencing-related bill that’s gotten attention is House Bill 1269 by Echols and Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City. The bill would make retroactive the reforms included in State Question 780, approved by voters in 2016. The state question reclassified certain low-level drug and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies; making SQ 780 retroactive would affect about 1,050 inmates.
Lawmakers showed an appetite for reform last year by approving a slate of bills designed to slow the rate of growth in the prison system. Hoping to build on that momentum, a group called Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform proposed 14 more reforms for this year, all of which apply to those in prison for crimes categorized as nonviolent.
OCJR says that without additional reforms, Oklahoma’s prison population is expected to grow by 14 percent in the next decade — from roughly 27,000 today to about 31,000. Approval of all the OCJR bills, the organization says, would cause the inmate population to fall below today’s level by 2028.
At the outset of the session, Senate Republicans made criminal justice reform one of their four priorities. Senate leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, noted in an op-ed in The Oklahoman that helping offenders before they wind up behind bars “keeps more families together, keeps more kids out of foster care and keeps more of our citizens as taxpaying members of society.” House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said as the session began that there were moral and financial reasons to lower the incarceration rate. New Gov. Kevin Stitt has advocated for justice reforms.
Oklahomans support additional reform, too. In a recent poll of registered voters in four legislative districts (House District 39, and Senate districts 29, 41 and 47), a clear majority said the state has too many people locked up and they approved of making SQ 780 retroactive. The poll was commissioned by Right on Crime, a conservative reform group.
Officials with OCJR say they’re concerned about what sorts of policy proposals will emerge from a working group that’s been meeting on this issue. John Estus, OCJR’s chief of staff, says the worry is that “the package … doesn’t move the needle.”
We hope those worries are for naught. Oklahoma must continue moving forward in this critical area.