Kris Steele is extremely disappointed legislators did not take more action on criminal justice reform this session.

Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahoma lawmakers propose targeted criminal justice reforms

  • Quinton Chandler
Gov. Kevin Stitt stands at a podium and announces a budget deal while flanked by legislative leaders.

Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

Gov. Kevin Stitt and legislators celebrating a budget deal in the waning days of the 2019 legislative session.

Oklahoma has made some big changes to its justice system in recent years. Activists and lawmakers proposed big picture reforms and some of the suggestions succeeded.

Voters decided to give more lenient sentences to people convicted of drug possession and certain low level property crimes in 2016. Lawmakers extended those benefits to some people convicted of the same crimes before the law changed.

Lawmakers also made granting state prisoners parole easier and more efficient leading to increases in early releases. People living under state supervision now face less strict penalties for breaking technical rules they’re required to follow.

But reformers have taken some losses too. Most of the reform agendas for the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions were voted down or blocked from passing early procedural hurdles.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the session to end early and a contentious state question attacking lengthy prison sentences suffered a landslide defeat.

Emily Virgin sits inside a capitol conference room.

Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin.

“Opposition groups … scared legislators”

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D – Norman) says reformers’ losses are largely a result of heavy pushback against their ideas. She believes that resistance has taken a toll.

“I think that some of the opposition groups have, for lack of a better term, scared legislators from taking some of these big, bold actions that need to be taken,” Virgin said.

Although she thinks many of the reform bills this session are important Virgin says lawmakers are taking a step away from a lot of harder policy questions.

“In order to make the progress that we need to make, we also are going to have to talk about mandatory minimum sentences on all crimes, not just those that are technically listed as nonviolent,” Virgin said.

“And do we really believe the things that we’ve said in the past about second chances and rehabilitation and looking at things on a case by case basis when we get into these sort of more serious crimes?”

Passing legislation that suggests less punishment and more intervention for people who have commited violent crimes is a tall order Virgin says.

For now, she says some bills reform activists have endorsed this year can still do a lot of good.

Another attempt to stop sentence enhancements

One of the highest impact measures is Senate Bill 704, which activists say would reduce the state’s prison population and save millions of dollars. The bill would end the practice of giving higher prison sentences to people who have former felony convictions when they’re convicted of new nonviolent felonies – a tool called sentence enhancement.

Kris Steele is executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. He says Senate Bill 704, sponsored by Sen. Dave Rader (R – Tulsa), would go a long way towards bringing prison sentences in Oklahoma more in line with other states.

Steele and other reform activists have been trying to enact different versions of this change for years. A bipartisan criminal justice reform task force created by former Republican Gov. Mary Fallin reported in 2017 that sentence enhancements were a large contributor to Oklahoma’s prison population crisis.

Due to successful reforms state prison populations are more manageable today, but experts have said they could creep back up.

Still, more than one bill addressing enhancements have been shot down in the Legislature before reaching the governor’s desk.

Just last year, a similar policy was proposed to voters in an attempt to sidestep the unfriendly legislators. State Question 805 was rejected by 61% of voters after deep cutting questions were raised about its effects.

Steele says Senate Bill 704 is different. The authors wrote it to address problems some voters had with the state question.

“So, for example, Senate Bill 704 is not a constitutional amendment,” Steele said.

Some Oklahomans were leery of the ballot question’s proposal to amend the state constitution.

There were also concerns that if the question passed, courts wouldn’t have been able to give harsher sentences to people convicted of serious crimes that were not classified as violent under state law before the ballot question was written.

Steele disputes that, but says the election results made it clear changes needed to be made before sentence enhancements could be eliminated for nonviolent offenders.

He says this bill would not disqualify sentence enhancements for “any domestic violence felony. The bill would not apply to any felony offense that requires registration under the Sex Offender Registration Act.”

Steele says the bill also wouldn’t block enhancements for people convicted of animal cruelty or driving under the influence and causing great bodily harm.

Kris Steele stands inside his office at The Education and Employment Ministry in Oklahoma City.

Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Executive Director Kris Steele.

New reports on savings from SQ 780

Another central piece of legislation reform advocates are championing this year would give the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services an annual deadline to tell legislative leaders how much money is being saved by two landmark 2016 voter initiatives.

One of the initiatives made drug possession and certain low level property crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies. The other initiative required savings from not imprisoning those people be spent on rehabilitating vulnerable Oklahomans.

“We want to be able to capture those savings and actually have the Legislature appropriate those savings back to the counties in the form of enhanced mental health services and substance abuse treatment,” Steele said.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform have also endorsed:

  • House Bill 2879 by Rep. Kevin Wallace (R – Wellston), which would create a state fund to pay for programs that help victims’ of violence recover and attempt to rehabilitate perpetrators. It would require any cost savings created by eliminating sentence enhancements for nonviolent felonies to be directed into the fund.
  • House Bill 2567 by Rep. Chad Caldwell (R – Enid), which would create a hospice care program in state prisons.
  • House Bill 1903 by Rep. Cynthia Roe (R – Lindsay), which would expand the eligibility criteria for state prisoners to be considered for medical parole.

If any of the bills are going to pass, they will need broad Republican support.

Democratic Rep. Emily Virgin isn’t fully on board with all of the bills, but she thinks most of them are important and might have a chance.

“I am really encouraged by a lot of my Republican colleagues digging into the science behind adverse childhood experiences and preventing crime from happening at that level,” Virgin said.

“And also recognizing that there are steps we can take even if someone has committed a crime rather than just locking them up.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R – Oklahoma City) recently told StateImpact there is a need for more progress on law changes that made certain drug-related crimes misdemeanors.

“I’ve been a little bit perturbed with the pace at which that has gone. Similar crimes don’t have similar punishment and we’ve got to make sure those bans make sense,” Treat said.

However, considering the number of failed attempts to enact reforms in the past, Virgin says it’s likely even this session’s less sweeping reform agenda will face an uphill battle in Oklahoma’s Legislature.