This week, Governor Kevin Stitt announced a number of Criminal Justice Reform priorities that he wants passed in the last weeks of session. This is a tremendous signal from the executive that criminal justice reform is a priority for the administration and should be applauded. These reforms range from commuting sentences of people convicted of felony drug possession to misdemeanor drug possession under the new Oklahoma criminal statutes and funding treatment and diversion programs.
Additionally, the Governor called for directly funding courts and district attorneys through general revenue as opposed to the current system of funding substantially through fines and fees. For decades, Oklahoma has funded its criminal justice system on the backs of offenders, creating incentives to prosecute minor offenses and burying those who are attempting to rebuild their lives in unsurmountable debt. To change this is not just reform, it is history!
In a joint-opinion piece with State House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, and State Senate Majority Floor Leader Kim David, Stitt said reforming how the courts and district attorneys are funded “…removes the conflict between administering justice and generating revenue, which will result in fewer fines and fees, and fewer individuals in a debtor’s prison.”
Did you catch that? “Debtor’s prison.”
The level of candidness from this new governor alone is refreshing.
The idea of getting away from fines and fees is something many of us in Oklahoma did not expect to see for another decade.
Language detailing the fines and fees reform is expected to be released soon. If it is everything we expect, Oklahoma leadership will show they’re willing to make some bold moves and encourage the rest of Oklahoma’s representatives and senators to follow suit.
Along with the Governor’s proposals, there are other critical reforms moving in the legislature that will help to reduce Oklahoma’s highest in the nation incarceration rate:
- Senate Bill 252, which implements monumental bail reform, has been passed by both chambers but is sitting with title off and will now face the conference committee process.
- House Bill 1100 would create a clear definition for Possession with Intent to Distribute, to help standardize law enforcement practices across the state.
- House Bill 1373 will provide vocational licensing opportunities for ex-offenders and is awaiting the Governor’s signature.
- House Bill 2218 includes additional fines and fees reform, including the ability for the court to waive fines and fees if an individual is working or getting an education, as well as other recidivism-reduction policies that have had great success in other conservative states in promoting public safety as well as saving taxpayer dollars.
- Proper funding of rehabilitative and probation services has also been listed as one of the Governor’s priorities, but we won’t see what that looks like till the state budget is hammered out.
These are important reforms that should be passed without delay.
To say there are great opportunities in the last weeks of session for Criminal Justice Reforms is an understatement. What started out as a legislative session full of questions is ending with the potential of making a meaningful difference in the lives of Oklahomans. If legislators follow through, they can announce Sine Die knowing they have done the morally and responsible thing for our state.
Joe Griffin, J.D. is the Policy and Communications Coordinator for Right on Crime in Oklahoma.