Oklahoma took a major leap forward when seven bills crafted from Governor Mary Fallin’s Task Force recommendations were signed into law on April 26, 2018. These seven bills specifically target reductions in Oklahoma’s bloated inmate population, while strengthening public safety.
Significant Bills Passed in 2018:
➢ HB 2281 (O’Donnell/Treat/Pittman): Creates a tiered penalty structure for felony property offenses by value, establishing more severe penalties for higher-value property offenses.
➢ HB 2286 (O’Donnell/Treat/Sharp/Jech): Streamlines parole for nonviolent offenders who abide by a case plan and maintain good behavior; develops a geriatric parole process for inmates older than 60 who have served a certain minimum.
➢ SB 649 (Treat/ODonnell/Sharp/Cleveland/Young/Jech/Pittman): Reduces enhanced sentences for certain repeat nonviolent felonies.
➢ SB 650 (Shaw/Loring/Pittman): Lowers the amount of time a non-violent offender must wait to seek an expungement from 15 years to 7 years. The amount of time is also reduced for inmates who have no more than 2 nonviolent felonies by and has no other convictions within ten years after completion of sentence.
➢ SB 689 (Treat/ODonnell/Sharp/Cleveland/Young/Jech/Pittman): Places restrictions on lengths of incarceration for technical violations; allows nonviolent offenders serving life without parole to be eligible for sentence modification; and, allows the court to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence for nonviolent crimes if it is not necessary for the protection of the public.
➢ SB 786 (Loring/Shaw/Cleveland/Pittman): Creates burglary in the third degree for breaking and entering a vehicle and removes the mandatory minimum term of two years from second degree burglary.
➢ SB 793 (Treat/Kannady/Sharp/Cleveland/Jech/Pittman): Changes the penalties for commercial drug offenses, and distinguishes conduct by possession with intent to distribute, distribution, and manufacturing.
➢ SB 1021 (Bice/Sykes/David): Allows defendants access to a public defender even if the defendant bonds out of jail before trial.
These bills are a significant and necessary next step, but they must not be the last step. The final versions of these bills were significantly diluted from their original forms and fall short of achieving the goals set forth in the Governor’s Task Force report. This will lower the acceleration of growth but it will not reduce the Sooner State’s prison population over the long term. This is a great start, but cannot be the end of the conversation or action.
The latest figures from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections show state prisons are currently at 112 percent capacity with only 70 percent of the recommended number of Corrections Officers. This doesn’t even include the additional 1,146 prisoners in county facilities due to current overcrowding. Without further action, the prison population will grow 25 percent by 2026.
Oklahoma has long claimed the dubious distinction of being the number-one incarcerator of women by rate. However, as of June 2018, Oklahoma has officially overtaken Louisiana as the state with the largest per capita prison population across the board.
These latest figures, compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, make a case for reform all on their own. Oklahoma locks up people at a rate of 1,079 per 100,000 residents. That is more than 150 percent higher than the nationwide average of 698 per 100,000.
When matched against incarceration rates among other industrialized first-world countries, the comparison becomes even more appalling. England’s rate is 141, Canada is 114, and Germany is 78 per 100,000. Even oppressive third-world governments, from Afghanistan (88) to Zimbabwe (120), lock up their citizens at a fraction of the rate of Oklahoma. The data is conclusive. Oklahoma does not just have the highest incarceration rate in the country — it’s one of the highest on the planet.
While appropriations chairs in both the House and Senate have agreed to issue up to $1 billion in bonds to fund the construction of two new prisons, those are intended to replace two current prisons that are in disrepair and will be taken off-line. However, with the passage of the reforms in 2018, we have ample opportunity to prevent the need for an additional prison if we are able to safely manage our inmate population growth within the next eight years.
We must focus on getting the best return on investment possible for our tax dollars, especially when it comes to public safety.
The legislature deserves praise for what it has accomplished so far. The legislature also needs to recognize its work is far from over.
Joe Griffin | September 21, 2018
Andrew Speno | August 30, 2018