Over the last few years, Oklahoma has had its eye on criminal justice reform, but it has remained one of the last holdouts for such reforms. As a result of its tough penalties for drug offenses, including simple possession, and non-violent property crimes, the state has led the nation and even the world in incarceration rates. However, voters decided enough was enough, and 2016 marked a significant moment in the state's criminal justice reform efforts. Still, despite significant reforms and even a record-breaking commutation this year, the state has a long way to go in reforming the criminal justice system.
In 2016, voters passed a ballot initiative which reduced many such crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and this year, Governor Kevin Stitt signed a measure that would make that law retroactive. On November 1, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended immediately commuting the sentences of 527 Oklahoma inmates, the largest single-day commutation in state history. On Monday, November 4, all but 65 of those inmates walked free, with those still held remaining because of immigration issues or charges in other states. Even though the release of so many inmates at once was a watershed moment in Oklahoma criminal justice reform, the state has just begun to scratch the surface of what is needed to truly fix a broken system.
For example, HB 1269, the retroactivity bill, was the only law to pass this year that specifically targeted Oklahoma's immense prison population. Four other bills that would target the current incarceration rate stalled:
- SB 616 which would take away the right to waive a parole hearing and which would offer an accelerated parole process for those nearing the end of their sentence
- HB 1100 which would clearly define the conditions under which a person should be charged with a felony drug crime
- HB 2009 which would shorten the prison sentences given to repeat offenders of nonviolent felonies
- SB 252 which would have considerably revamped the state's bail process, making it affordable for more people to bond out of jail while awaiting trial. Currently, the system discriminates against the poor, who cannot afford bond, and, if they somehow are able to make bail, are then denied a public defender. These people remain in jail for months even before being convicted of any crime simply because they cannot afford the bond.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D, Norman) says that many legislators caved to scare tactics on HB 252, one of the most needed reforms:
“We heard about people who were let out on bail and went on to commit other crimes." Once that bill ultimately failed in a narrow vote (45-49), legislators found it easier to vote against subsequent reform bills.
While the state has made progress in reforming the criminal justice system over the past three years, it is clear that more work is needed. Reform experts say they were encouraged by measures taken in 2016-2018, but they were disappointed that progress nearly stalled this year. Even Louisiana, the state with whom Oklahoma continually vies for dubious distinction of highest incarcerator, has adopted reforms similar to those that Oklahoma this year denied. Without these needed reforms, the state will struggle to keep up with those states who have already made significant changes to their criminal justice policies. At this point, we are trying to bail water out of a leaky boat, and no real progress will be made until we make the needed repairs.