Oklahoma Advances Criminal Justice Reform Measures
According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, Oklahoma had the second-highest incarceration rate in the country as of 2014, jailing 703 of every 100,000 citizens. To keep pace, Governor Mary Fallin has been forced to request additional funds to ensure adequate space and staff levels to ensure prisoners are safely and securely housed. In the Oklahoma State of the State address, Fallin spent a significant amount of time discussing her concerns regarding the criminal justice system:
Today, I’m calling for serious sentencing changes that will preserve public safety while helping control prison costs and reduce incarceration rates. Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Oklahoma’s drug possession sentences haven’t deterred substance abuse and have filled our prisons to over-capacity. These sentences, while well intentioned, tend to send some nonviolent offenders into prison for years and years, where they live alongside violent offenders whose bad influences can make nonviolent offenders worse.
The governor addressed many key issues, including overly harsh penalties for low-level, nonviolent offenders and the fact going to prison once makes it significantly more likely for an individual to recidivate and end up back in prison. She has taken proactive steps in introducing a criminal justice reform package that has received bipartisan support. Some of the proposed measures include a higher threshold for a property crime to be charged as a felony, more discretion in sentencing for low-level crimes and a broader utilization of drug courts. All four bills have passed both the Oklahoma House and Senate, and have been referred to the Appropriations Committee.
ALEC has related resolutions in support of diversion programs and for the reclassification of low-level drug offenses. Both of these resolutions ultimately seek to provide alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-risk offenders. Citizens of the Sooner State should be proud of the efforts of their legislature and community. All of these proposed reforms, if passed into law, will help place Oklahoma on the path to a more efficient, effective and logical criminal justice system.