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Oklahoma is no Longer First in Incarceration

| November 25, 2019

Earlier this month, Governor Stitt signed a landmark signed an historic piece of legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jon Echols and Senator Stephanie Bice, that resulted in a record commutation of 527 nonviolent individuals from its prisons, including folks serving time for drug possessions and low-level property crimes.

So how did the largest commutation in our nation’s history come about? In 2016 Oklahomans voted overwhelmingly in favor of State Question 780 to de-felonize possession and raise the felony theft threshold to $1,000. Prior to its passage, simple possession was a felony, and many were sent to prison. After voters had their say on the matter, lawmakers, led by Rep. Jon Echols and Senator Stephanie Bice, took a stand last session to ensure that de-felonization of simple possession and minor property crimes applied retroactively for folks currently serving a sentence on these charges. Because of the courage and determination of voters, lawmakers and Governor Stitt, Oklahoma will save over $11 million dollars and give its overcrowded detention facilities some relief.

While not being the nation’s number one incarcerator is an improvement, Oklahoma can still say its number two. The month’s commutation is a great start, but the criminal justice reform effort is far from over.

District attorneys and local law enforcement have raised concerns over defelonizing crimes and the impact on public safety. Their concerns do hold water. Just because Oklahoma lowers the penalties on a particular crime does not mean the people released will not return to custody later. This is why Oklahoma must fund rehabilitative and diversionary programs to address treatment needs and behaviors.

The move away from the practice of costly incarceration of folks for simple possession of minor property crimes is only a partial solution. Oklahomans understood this when they voted for State Question 780 alongside State Question 781, which requires the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to direct the cost savings into a fund and reinvested into the counties for rehabilitative and diversionary programs.

Even prior to the landmark commutations spurred by recent legislation, with the passage of State Question 780 in 2016, some cost savings should have already materialized in the form of funding toward county programs. This begs the question, where are the savings and funds?

No one really knows. Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections and Office of Management and Enterprise Services have been battling for more than a year over whether any funds really exist despite a lower prison population. Inter-agency squabbles are never resolved quickly in Oklahoma, so once again, the Legislature needs to take a stand. A permanent and dependable revenue source must be secured to fund the programs detailed in SQ 781.

Criminal justice reform is more than just prison numbers. It is about treating crime, addiction, and mental illness differently and effectively. If Oklahoma fails to respect the will of the voters, then the folks we were putting in prison will just be numbers in our local jails, and the outcome is more of the same.



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JOE GRIFFIN is the Communications and Policy Coordinator for Oklahoma. A native of Baltimore, Joe earned bachelor’s degrees from University of Maryland Baltimore County and Towson University. After college, Joe spent the early years of his career in TV news, reporting on crime and state and local politics in West Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Joe went on to serve as the communications director for two Oklahoma Speakers of the House and worked as a media consultant for a number of political campaigns. He is currently finishing his Juris Doctorate at Oklahoma City University School of Law and will take the bar exam in 2019.

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