Oklahoma House advances criminal justice measures

OKLAHOMA CITY — Seeking to reduce recidivism, enhance public safety and better manage the state’s crowded prisons, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed several criminal justice reform measures prior to the first legislative deadline last week. 

“Our prisons are understaffed and filled well beyond capacity and the environment is not safe for inmates or corrections employees,” said House Speaker Jeffrey W. Hickman, R-Fairview. “Nonviolent offenders leave prison facing large fees and fines, but with limited opportunities to get employment to pay what they owe or even get a driver’s license to be able to drive to work. They are set up to fail, reoffend and be back in the care of Oklahoma taxpayers.”

In 2012, both chambers enacted, and Gov. Mary Fallin signed, a cluster of new laws deemed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). However, Gov. Fallin in early 2013 rebuffed a federal implementation grant for that program. Other than in the mental health arena, JRI implementation withered over the past two years.

Despite the lack of movement on reforms, some legislators have continued to make the case for corrections and prison reforms over those two years. One House member, State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Norman) has visited every corrections site in the state, and has pressed for JRI implementation. House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, whose work helped enact the JRI, has continued to push for it.

Additionally, organizations with varied political sympathies have continued to call for JRI to become a reality. 

Former House Speaker Kris Steele, a Republican, garnered a Lifetime Civic Engagement Award from VOICE (Voices Organized in Civic Engagement) for his role in fashioning a bipartisan consensus for reform during his tenure.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) included corrections reform in its 2015 Freedom Agenda released late last year. Most recently, OCPA’s executive vice president, Jonathan Small, made the case for judicial discretion as a means to reduce over incarceration.

Another “think tank,” the Oklahoma Policy Institute, has long championed effective steps to counter Oklahoma’s unenviable high rankings for incarceration of both men and women.

This year, Gov. Fallin made alternatives to incarceration and other measures evocative of the JRI concept a center-piece of her State of the State address. 

The chief executive re-embraced concepts she touted in the walk-up to enactment of the JRI framework three years ago. Fallin recently has preferred the terminology “Right on Crime” or “Smart on Crime” to boost concepts intended to erode imprisonment for non-violent crimes.

Also this year, the governor named a steering committee to oversee efforts to combat over-incarceration. However, she did not include any Democrats on that panel.

As the state Legislature organized for the 2015 session this past winter, Speaker Hickman created the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee to “bring more focus to these important issues and the crisis facing the state,” in the words of a House staff release.

“This is a serious issue that both our metro and rural areas face,” said Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, chair of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. Too often we hear of the unsafe conditions in our prisons and news stories about inmate escapes and our high recidivism rates. The point of our modern corrections system should be to protect citizens from those who are deemed the most dangerous, and rehabilitate those who deserve a second chance and can be productive and successful members of society. We cannot continue to go down our current path and expect to fulfill these goals.”

The House recently passed seven measures dealing with the issue of criminal justice reform — ranging from expanding work opportunities for ex-offenders to how inmates are paroled, monitored and rehabilitated.

“I thank my colleagues for their dedication to addressing this serious issue,” said Hickman. 

“Oklahoma has proven itself to be an innovator in public policy, and by advancing these measures we can also be a leader in criminal justice reform.” 

A sketch of those seven measures is provided below.
Criminal Justice Reform Legislation in the state House, 2015
House Bill 1117 (Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Norman) – Strengthens the parole supervision process and expands Department of Corrections ability to incentivize good behavior using credits for 85 percent crimes.

House Bill  1630 (Rep. Lisa Billy, R-Lindsay) – Streamlines inmate transfer process from county jail to Department of Corrections.

House Bill 1518 (Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa) – Allows judges flexibility in modifying sentences for certain offenders.

House Bill 1548 (Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha) – Allows for judicial review of sentence modification after completion of Bill Johnson Correctional Center drug offender program.

House Bill 2168 (Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa) – Modifies employment licensing requirements to expand work opportunities for former offenders.

House Bill 2179 (Speaker Hickman) – Modifies provisional driver’s license and commercial driver’s license requirements to increase opportunities for former offenders to seek gainful employment.

House Bill 2187 (Speaker Hickman) – Authorizes Pardon and Parole Board to use electronic monitoring of parolee.
NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report