Advocates urge Oklahoma Legislature, Governor to support criminal justice reform bills

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Criminal justice reform advocates are calling on Oklahoma lawmakers and Governor Kevin Stitt to support a series of bills they say would stop prison growth.

"Non-violent offenders in Oklahoma on average serve sentences that are 80 times longer than the national average. We must bring non-violent prison sentences in line with best practices," said Kris Steele, executive director of the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.

Advocates at the Capitol on Tuesday specifically discussed the following bills:

  •  HB1269: would apply State Question 780 retroactively and reclassifies low-level drug and property offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor.
  •  HB2273/HB2218: a supervision reform package that reduces the likelihood of returning to prison for technical violations such as the inability to secure a job, housing or missing a court-ordered fine or fee payment.
  •  HB2009: sentence enhancement reform to stop over-sentencing of non-violent felonies
  •  HB1100: defines Possession with Intent to Distribute with specific weights and circumstances
  • SB252: bail reform to stop Oklahomans from being incarcerated prior to conviction for misdemeanors and low-level, non-violent offenses because they cannot afford to make bail

According to Steele, Oklahoma's current prison population could be reduced by 5 percent if these bills were in place. He said about 1,000 inmates could be released from incarceration from making State Question 780 apply retroactively, alone.

"Ultimately, these bills collectively affect about 8,000 people in the course of time," he told News 4. "It’s estimated there are over 60,000 Oklahomans who are walking around with a felony conviction. They’ve completed their sentence, they served their time."

Rhonda Bear understands how difficult the transition process can be once an inmate is released from prison.  Bear said she battled with drug addiction for practically her entire life. The addiction began when she was just 12-years-old.

She was locked up for two years before being released in 2002.

"The last time I used drugs, I was 37. I couldn’t kick it," Bear said. "I wanted to beat drug addiction and I wanted to get my children back. I took every program I could take in prison. I met mentors that could help me upon my release."

It was not an easy process.

"I'm still number 377488  - 'felon', and that fear of rejection often keeps us from trying to move forward," she explained. "There’s a stigma of shame that comes with the label of ‘felon’ and it makes it hard to raise your head. It makes it hard to fight when you’re turned down from a job. It makes it hard to fight when you’re rejected from housing. It makes it hard to fight when you’re turned down from a college when you wanted to better your life."

Since then, Bear has opened businesses and housing programs specifically aimed at helping more women once incarcerated. She said she hopes the proposed reform bills could help others.

Some, however, argue making State Question 780 apply retroactively could create more problems than it would solve. A statement from Brian Hermanson, District Attorney for Kay and Noble Counties, reads:

"Making 780 retroactive will create many problems for an already burdened criminal justice system. The logistics of re-sentencing persons for past crimes would require the determining which cases are effected, opening those cases and setting them for hearing, re-appointing criminal defense attorneys to see that the defendants are represented, transporting defendants to the Courts where they have had cases, the filing of legal pleading, briefs and the conducting of hearing and a determination of each and every case. The cost in time and money to an already strapped system would be difficult.

Additionally, some violent crimes may be affected when a 780 crime was used as an after former conviction. It may undo jury trials and make cases difficult, if not impossible to re-prosecute.

There are much better ways to address these types of issues. Using the Pardon and Parole system by giving 780 type cases an accelerated parole process would eliminate the problems discussed above.

We must use smarter solutions to address prison crowding. We don’t need criminal justice reform unless it is smart criminal justice reform."

A spokesperson for Gov. Kevin Stitt said Tuesday criminal justice reform remains a top priority and that the Governor was actively engaging in negotiations with the Legislature on what could be accomplished this year and future years.

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