Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform advance ideas safely to reverse prison growth
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Published: 06-Feb-2019

Legislators have filed bills containing 14 policy proposals from Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR) to improve public safety while stopping projected prison population growth over the next decade. 

“These are practical, proven steps to get control of Oklahoma’s unsustainable prison growth,” said former House Speaker Kris Steele, chairman and executive director of OCJR. “Oklahomans of all stripes agree we need a turnaround in our criminal justice system. We are not the world’s worst people, as our statistics would suggest. Our coalition is very encouraged by the momentum for these bills and stopping prison growth in Oklahoma, starting now.”

Without reform this year, the prison population will increase by 14 percent by 2028, topping 31,000 people in prison and costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in new prisons without improving public safety, the group said in a press release sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations. 
The OCJR reform package would, supporters project, collectively reduce the projected 2028 prison population by 17 percent by averting all growth and making a modest reduction in today’s prison population, saving an estimated $200 million in operational costs in the process. That figure does not include the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to build new prisons to expand the prison system capacity to handle growth.

“Success this session is safely stopping prison growth and modestly reducing the prison population. By implementing these proposals, Oklahoma can move to newer, smarter ways of thinking about public safety that are widely proven to be more effective than the status quo,” said Amy Santee, board member of OCJR and senior program officer for the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Oklahoma has the nation’s No. 1 incarceration rate because it sends far more nonviolent offenders to prison for far longer than other states, without a demonstrated public safety benefit. Oklahoma sent more people to prison than ever last year.

To address these challenges and others, the OCJR board and coalition last year developed a policy agenda containing 14 proposals that legislators have since put into bills for the 2019 legislative session that begins Monday. By emphasizing reforms involving nonviolent offenses, the OCJR agenda would:

    • Apply retroactivity to State Question 780 and other recent nonviolent sentence changes, allowing for resentencing under current law for the incarcerated and people with old felonies.
    • Stop injustice against mothers for failure to protect from child abuse by preventing parents who committed no abuse from receiving longer sentences than abusers. 
    • Specify possession with intent to distribute to end overcharging for drug possession. 
    • Expand use of evidence-proven supervision and recidivism reduction practices.
    • Limit powerful sentence enhancement practices for nonviolent offenders.
    • End pretrial detention for misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges.

Bills have also been filed to strengthen family connections for the incarcerated, end jailing for simple possession of marijuana, improve the pretrial and jury trial process, and provide better information to the public and state officials to increase accountability and inform future criminal justice policymaking. 

“If these bills are successfully implemented, Oklahoma will still be No. 1 in incarceration, still see overcrowded prisons and still have excessive sentences - but we won’t be getting worse, like we are now. That’s a solid, significant step we believe elected leaders will embrace so they can address the bigger issues next,” said Gene Rainbolt, chairman emeritus of BancFirst and board member of OCJR. “We must slow down the felony factory this state has created in its criminal justice system. Oklahoma’s future depends on it.”

The bills are being carried by a group of 26 legislators comprised of Republicans and Democrats from all corners of the state and at all stages of their legislative careers.

“From Governor Kevin Stitt on down, elected leaders at all levels from all backgrounds are speaking stronger than ever in favor of criminal justice reform. Support is widespread, and we are fully committed to championing sound, evidence-based policy that helps state leaders effectively, safely end mass incarceration in Oklahoma,” said Steele.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform describes itself as a group which “advances safety, restoration and freedom in Oklahoma. We are a bipartisan coalition of business and community leaders, law enforcement experts, service providers and advocates committed to justice reforms that improve public safety by reducing Oklahoma’s bloated prison population, saving taxpayer dollars, reinvesting in alternatives, and keeping families together.”

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