Criminal justice reform bills move forward

OKLAHOMA CITY — A series of criminal justice reform bills are moving forward at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

“It’s very encouraging to see Governor Stitt and legislators continue to prioritize criminal justice reform. As a package, these five reforms will create a stronger Oklahoma by increasing public safety, saving taxpayer dollars and stopping prison growth,” said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “We thank our elected leaders for the progress to date and look forward to seeing these bills through to the finish line. Oklahoma is on track to improve its poor incarceration rankings and outcomes if these bills become law.”

All of the following bills have moved forward and will return to the chamber of origin for further consideration.

  •  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.

“Oklahoma cannot continue to warehouse prisoners who need substance abuse and medical treatment for their addiction and mental health issues. This mentality has given us the highest incarceration rate in the world, cost our state a tremendous amount of money, and has torn families apart. The measures passed today strike the balance between upholding public safety and moving forward with comprehensive criminal justice reforms that will keep families together, and get nonviolent offenders the treatment they need to remain productive members of society,” said Sen. Darcy Jech, R-Kingfisher.

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.”

“I am encouraged to see the unanimous passage of HB 2273, which makes the probation and parole process more just and more transparent, today in the Senate. This critical legislation would shorten the maximum imprisonment for technical revocations, such as not paying supervision fees. Those technical violations disproportionately fall on the poor, who should never be put into custody for being unable to pay. Second, the law would make the parole process more transparent. With these changes, people in custody must be told why they are being denied parole and how they might improve their chances at the next hearing. That knowledge is valuable for the accountability of the board and helps people in custody direct their actions in a positive way. As the legislative session comes to a close and legislators come together in conference, I hope the common sense, bipartisan action we’ve seen continues,” said Jill Webb, legal director for ACLU Oklahoma.

However, some argue that these bills would negatively affect the state.

“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,” Brian Hermanson, district attorney for Kay and Noble counties, said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Gov. Kevin Stitt told News 4 that 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 in the future.

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