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Lawmakers approve retroactivity measure, fail to advance other criminal justice reforms

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Oklahoma Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City
Oklahoma Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City

Lawmakers signed off on a highly touted criminal justice retroactivity bill Thursday, wrapping up what was otherwise a largely disappointing session for some criminal justice reform advocates.

House Bill 1269, which would apply the provisions of State Question 780 retroactively, now heads to the governor for approval. The state question, passed by voters in 2016, reclassified some drug and property crimes as misdemeanors.

The bill establishes an expedited commutation process for people serving felony prison sentences for offenses that are now misdemeanors. It also provides a simplified path to expungement for people with old drug possession and low-level property convictions.

As the final hours of the legislative session ticked down Thursday, it was uncertain whether the Senate would vote on the measure. Just before adjourning, Senate Republicans brought it up on a revised agenda. The bill passed without debate by a vote of 34-11.

Lawmakers estimated between 500 and 800 people could be released from jail on simple possession charges and tens of thousands of people could have their records expunged under the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd called the bill "a positive step forward."

“We would like to get more criminal justice reform done, but I believe that most people in the building feel the same way on that," she said.

Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said while he wishes more had happened with criminal justice reform this year, there were some "real wins." In addition to passing the retroactivity measure, lawmakers started the process in this year's budget of changing the way district attorneys are funded and passed reform to make it easier for people who have committed crimes to get a license, Echols said.

"Continued steady progress needs to be the goal of the Legislature," he said.

Thursday morning, a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates made a last-ditch plea to lawmakers to pass the retroactivity bill and several other key reforms. The other measures failed to advance, to the disappointment of advocates, who went into the session with plenty of optimism and momentum.

“In a session that was so promising and when the governor himself ran on a criminal justice reform platform and wants to be a governor of action and begin the process of reducing our prison population by 20% and moving us out of this dubious distinction of being No. 1, we didn’t take near enough action this year to accomplish those goals," said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.

Steele said there were some bright spots, but overall the session was not productive.

On Wednesday, a bill to reform the bail process failed to clear the Oklahoma House by a vote of 49 to 45. Advocates for the measure said it was designed to end the practice of “unnecessary and expensive” pretrial detention for most people with misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges, allowing those individuals to return to their families and jobs while waiting for their day in court.

“We’re in dire need of doing something with our system,” Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, said while debating the measure. “This is not a perfect bill, but our current system is far more flawed than you could ever imagine to a point that we have a crisis.”

The bill was opposed by bail bondsmen and others who argued there’s a risk defendants who are released on their own recognizance might reoffend or won’t come back to court, putting a burden on local law enforcement.

“I think we all appreciate there is some need for criminal justice reforms, but let’s be wise about it,” said Rep. Rande Worthen, R-Lawton. “This bill is an ill-conceived bill under the guise of criminal justice, and it’s addressing a problem that I think only exists primarily in two major communities.”

Other criminal justice measures that failed to advance included a bill to standardize and reduce sentence enhancements for people convicted of nonviolent offenses with only nonviolent priors and a bill to create a uniform definition of possession with intent to distribute.

Staff Writer Carmen Forman contributed to this report.

Darla Slipke

Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut, North Carolina and Oklahoma, including a previous... Read more ›

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