After disappointing draft from ‘reclassification coordination council,’ justice reformers hope for improvement
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Published: 02-Jun-2021
Pat McGuigan

Despite broad public support for continued criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, I believe that recommendations from the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council (a group reporting to the Legislature and to the new Oklahoma Attorney General) would, in present form, increase the state’s prison population in the coming decade.

Felicity Rose, a research and policy director for FWD.us, prepared a detailed analysis of the council’s recommendations which coincide with my reading of the available material.
In a recent interview with The City Sentinel, Ms. Rose was asked if the council had acted in good faith while preparing the report, submitted earlier this year.

Her measured reflection was: “I think the best case scenario is that they didn’t know or fully appreciate the impact of the recommendations.”

She continued, “The hope was that the Council’s recommendations would meet the mandate to hold neutral or reduce the prison population. We haven’t heard that kind of response. In the fall we sent the Council a statement of principles, but we’re not getting the feeling that they are trying to reach the goal of lower incarceration.”

Members of the A.G.’s council are awaiting a widely-anticipated response from the state Corrections Department before submitting the bulk of the existing draft or adapting it in response to critical comments.

Because no legislation in the regular 2021 session dealt with criminal justice reclassification  per se, the Corrections agency response could be significant.
Rose observed that the A.G. council’s draft “did focus on the 85-percent-crimes, but that is only 15 percent of the imprisoned population.” The reference is to crimes which require, under existing law, that 85 percent of a sentence be served before a person becomes eligible for parole or “time-served” consideration.

Rose told The City Sentinel, “We hope [the reclassification council] will take a new look and decide not to retain their recommendations that have the effect of increasing the time served by those in the non-85-percent population. Our assumption is that doing even that would have at least some positive effect on the numbers.”

In a prepared analysis, Rose said, “Our analysis shows the Council’s recommendations would increase the prison population by nearly 1,000 people over the next decade and cost between $20 million to $83 million in additional prison expenses. Oklahomans want to safely reduce their incarceration rate and to make the most out of their taxpayer investments — these latest recommendations run counter to that.”

Summing up, a summary from Ms. Rose projected the recommendations “would significantly increase the time a person spends in prison in Oklahoma. Nearly half (48 percent) of people who serve time for a nonviolent offense with two or more priors would spend 39 percent longer in prison.” As the Rose analysis contends, “Oklahomans already serve longer in prison than the national average for nonviolent drug (79 percent longer) and property offenses (70 percent longer) despite a large body of research demonstrating that excessively long prison terms do not improve public safety.”

Oklahoma, Mississipi, Ohio and Arizona are among a group of states with populations 13 percent higher than similarly situated states where criminal justice reforms have actually been implemented. Further, “Oklahoma has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the country and has been one of the leading incarcerators of women for the past three decades.”

“This high incarceration rate has done nothing but spend more than half a billion dollars on prisons a year, and ultimately hurt Oklahoma’s workforce, economy, and families,” said Rose in her formal response. Her summary asserts, “It is incumbent upon the Council to not only meet but exceed its statutory requirement by developing recommendations that will safely decrease the prison population and free up resources for victim services and mental health and drug treatment. As the Council moves forward, continued analysis of the human and fiscal impact of their proposals is needed.”

In her interview with The City Sentinel, Rose observed, “There is a lot of momentum across the country in a positive direction on incarceration issues. As you know, we are also working in Mississippi, which has made some changes that will expand the number of people who are parole-eligible. It is disappointing that these recommendations in Oklahoma stepped away from the earlier momentum. So, the next important step is we are hoping Oklahoma can begin, once again, to take the lead in criminal justice reform, as it had begun to do until the last couple of years.” 

The impetus for reform emerged in 2012, when a variety of “justice reinvestment” proposals were enacted, only to fade over years of non-implementation. A pair of statutory citizen initiatives (State Questions 780 and 781) rebooted reform efforts, but a setback came with defeat of another citizen initiative (State Question 805) intended to lock reforms into the state constitution.

Despite the ups and downs of the past nine years, public opinion pollsters have found continued steady support for the incremental reforms intended in recent years.  

FWD.us describes itself as “a bipartisan political organization that believes America’s families, communities, and economy thrive when more individuals are able to achieve their full potential. For too long, our broken immigration and criminal justice systems have locked too many people out of the American dream. Founded by leaders in the technology and business communities, we seek to grow and galvanize political support to break through partisan gridlock and achieve meaningful reforms. Together, we can move America forward.”

UPDATE: After the print deadline for The City Sentinel newspaper, where this analysis first appeared June 1, the group “Right-On-Crime” shared with allies (in discussions after conclusion of the recent legislative session) its own critical analysis of the reclassification coordination council’s draft recommendations. The group, which includes many conservatives who have advocated for prison reform and criminal justice sentencing changes, also is awaiting the response of the Corrections agency. And, in other criminal justice news, Oklahoma reformers across the political spectrum were encouraged that Senate Bill 334, a measure designed to undercut the history reform ballot initiative, State Question 780, did NOT advance at the Capitol for a final vote. 

Biographical: Editor of The City Sentinel newspaper and founder of CapitolBeatOK.com, an online news service, Pat McGuigan is co-editor of “Crime and Punishment in Modern America” (University Press of America, 1985), a compilation of conservative and libertarian  policy recommendations. He is the author of hundreds of news reports, analyses and commentaries on criminal justice issues and on other issues.

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