With changes, Corrections reform measure pending in state House

Last week, the state Senate approved House Bill 2131, a major prison reform measure from Speaker of the House Kris Steele. The measure prevailed 44-3, but with the state’s default sentencing structure retained in its present form. 

Steele had sought to shift sentencing assumptions from consecutive terms to concurrent in cases where two more convictions occur at trial. While that measure was dropped, the remaining key provisions of the proposal remain in place. 

Senator Patrick Anderson of Enid said the consecutive vs. concurrent battle was one he would “have to right another day.” Despite that revision, the measure in its current form (as the House prepares to consider it anew) still expands community sentencing programs and Global Positioning System (GPS) monitoring for nonviolent offenders.

Sen. Anderson says the bill will save taxpayer dollars while ensuring the state’s most dangerous criminals are kept behind bars.  Anderson said Oklahoma currently spends $500 million on adult corrections.

“The amount of money we spend on incarceration continues to skyrocket,” said Anderson, an Enid Republican. “Expanding community sentencing and GPS monitoring for nonviolent offenders will save millions of dollars and still ensure the public is protected from the state’s most dangerous offenders. This is just good public policy.”

H.B. 2131’s key reforms include these:

·         Expanding eligibility for community sentencing programs and mandatory supervision.  The cost of community sentencing is approximately $3.50 per day.

·         Expand eligibility for GPS monitoring.  The cost for GPs is about $4.75 per day compared to $38 per day for minimum security imprisonment.

·         For the first time, establishing qualification requirements for Parole Board members, including a minimum bachelor’s degree in social science or at least 10 years of experience in criminal justice, law or counseling.  These qualifications would, advocates say, enable board members to better determine which offenders should remain incarcerated and which are ready for parole.

·         Limiting the Governor’s role in the parole process for nonviolent offenders.    The measure would NOT remove the Governor from the parole process. The Governor would still be required to take action on parole recommendations for those convicted of violent crimes as well as crimes involving the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults.

Sen. Anderson said the corrections recommendations were the result of a joint effort by representatives of the District Attorneys Council; the Court of Criminal Appeals; District Court Judges; the Department of Corrections; and a bipartisan group of House and Senate members.

Speaker Steele, in comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, said, “We are one step closer to addressing a critical public safety issue for Oklahoma. Because our prisons are at 99% capacity, currently, if someone is convicted of a crime and considered a danger to society, there is virtually no place to put them.  These changes would result in the better use of taxpayer dollars, increase in public safety and more appropriate consequences for low-risk offenders.”

Oklahoma is the only state that requires the Governor to approve every parole after the Pardon and Parole Board submits a recommendation. The bill would limit the Governor’s participation in the parole process for non-violent offenders by allowing the recommendation of the Pardon and Parole Board to go into effect if no action is taken within 30 days of receipt by the Governor.

“If we can increase the use of community based services for non-violent offenders and place a greater focus on treatment and prevention, the crime rates in our state could be reduced,” stated Steele.

House Bill 2131 is pending on the floor of the Oklahoma House. While it could be considered this week, it might not face its final round until later in the session. 

The involvement of chief executive’s in the parole process remains the focus of scrutiny and reporting. Recent reports have detailed a wave of parole 313 approvals late in the administration of the immediate past governor of the state, Brad Henry. Not all of the approvals were completed while Henry was governor and his Secretary of State, Susan Savage, was still in office. 

Current Governor Mary Fallin and her appointee as Secretary of State, Glenn Coffee (the former President Pro Tem of the Senate) reviewed the paroles. Most were ultimately approved, but 38 were denied by Fallin, and a few dozen parole recommendations are still pending.
Note: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.