Last week the Oklahoma state legislature passed several bills related to criminal justice that show signs of promise for future reforms in the state. The most prominent bill is HB 1518, The Justice Safety Valve Act, which is modeled after ALEC legislation and aims to provide judges with an alternative sentencing option. This bill would allow judges to seek lesser sentences for crimes requiring mandatory minimum sentences if the sentence is determined to be unjust and the defendant does not pose a risk to public safety. The bill would not apply to violent or sex related criminal charges.

The bill represents a way for states facing high incarceration rates to stem the flow of mandatory minimum sentences while still taking into account the facts of the case and the offenders background. The passage of this bill will mean that judges have more discretion to ensure the punishment fits the crime, it will ensure state dollars are used more effectively, and will address one of the primary causes for Oklahoma’s growing prison population – mandatory minimum sentences. While future savings depend how often this safety valve is exercised, avoiding one year of prison in a medium security facility will generate $17,328 per individual in savings for the state. The bill passed the Senate 31-13 and is awaiting another vote on the House floor.

HB 1574 is similar in that it would change the penalty for persons convicted of two or more previous felony violations of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act from life without parole, to not less than twenty years to life imprisonment or life without parole. Judges would still have the option of life without parole but under this bill it would not be required. The legislation passed the Senate 37-5 and is currently awaiting another vote on the House floor.

HB 2168 and HB 2169 both relate to employment and show that legislators are beginning to understand the impact of incarceration on the life outcomes following imprisonment. HB 2168 modifies conditions under which certain licenses, registrations and certificates may be denied, revoked, suspended, or renewal refused. Where currently any felony conviction might affect licensure, registration or certification, this measure would allow this only in cases where the felony was within the previous 5 years and substantially related to the practice, or poses a reasonable threat to public safety. The bill passed the Senate 43-1 and has been sent to the Governor’s office for signature.

HB 2169 is narrower in focus than 2168 but also signals an implicit recognition that the legislature must do more to lower the state-enforced barriers to employment for those with criminal records. The bill would shield employers from certain lawsuits that might stem from their hiring of persons who have been convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual offenses. The bill would not provide additional protections in cases where a lawsuit stems from conduct similar to the original criminal conviction. HB 2169 passed the Senate 44-0 and is awaiting another vote on the House floor.

While some of these bills faced uphill battles in their respective committees, the wide margins in which they passed the Senate is promising. Future reforms will depend on this type of bipartisan support not only for legislative approval, but also for funding, implementation, and enforcement.