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Point of View: Moving on criminal justice reform

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For the first time in recent history, Oklahoma’s incarcerated population declined by more than 1,000 state inmates from this time last year. Yet our state’s incarcerated population still includes more than 27,000 men and women. And while the decrease was a welcomed change, we have a long way to go to modernize our criminal justice system and end Oklahoma’s reputation as the top state for incarceration.

Oklahomans deserve a modernized criminal justice system that makes public safety the priority, uses innovative alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, provides rehabilitative services and reunites families to create a brighter future for all Oklahomans. There are six areas to focus efforts initially to make this a reality for our state:

• Reform the funding of district attorneys and courts so their budgets are based on an appropriation and not on their collection of fines and fees. Any fines and fees should go directly to the state's general revenue fund. This removes the conflict between administering justice and generating revenue, which will result in fewer fines and fees, and fewer individuals in a debtor’s prison.

• Correct the decline in Pardon and Parole Board numbers over the last decade, and ensure it is fulfilling its constitutional duty to release inmates who should no longer be in prison. The Pardon and Parole Board reports that thousands of inmates waived their parole in fiscal year 2018. Eliminating the parole waiver and narrowing the violations for which a parolee may be returned to prison are effective commonsense reforms.

• Invest in diversion and treatment programs that help Oklahomans break the cycle of incarceration. Programs like Pay for Success are more cost effective than incarceration, improve public safety and help Oklahomans become productive citizens. These investments are critical to have any success at reforming our current system and reducing incarceration.

• Allow Oklahomans with a nonviolent felony conviction to be licensed in occupations so long as the occupation is not substantially related to the offense. We must remove barriers to opportunity, like licensure, and give Oklahomans a second chance instead of a second prison.

• Create an expedited pardon and parole commutation process and an expungement process for Oklahomans convicted of felonies that are no longer a felony in state law. This includes all past and future changes in law, including the release of hundreds of inmates currently in prison for crimes changed by State Question 780, and expungements for all Oklahomans who have ever been convicted of such crimes.

• Modernize the entire criminal code by removing outdated crimes and creating a comprehensive A/B/C classification system like other states. This holistic approach will allow for new and smarter sentencing and enhancement laws based on classifications that are appropriate to violent and nonviolent crimes. Classifications will also facilitate new guidelines for the proper use of bail and alternative sentencing and diversions that keep Oklahomans out of prison and remaining productive.

Being a top ten state includes being smart on criminal justice. These key areas of reform will help us move the needle to improve public safety, honor victims, rehabilitate offenders and reduce prison crowding.

Stitt was elected governor in November. David is the Senate floor leader and Echols is the House floor leader. All are Republicans.

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