Our Top Policy Priorities This Legislative Session
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is thankful for the opportunity to help educate the public and policymakers at the Capitol this legislative session as we all work towards a more equitable criminal legal system for all Oklahomans.
With this in mind, we would like to highlight just a few of the areas where the state is poised to make progress in this year. For a shortened version of the following information, you can find our one pager here.
Did you know that Oklahoma has a higher crime rate than Kansas despite nearly double the average sentence length for common property crimes? This proves that our overly long sentences are doing nothing to give us safer communities. On top of this, Oklahoma incarcerates its 55+ population at one of the highest rates in the nation, meaning that many people who are in our overcrowded state prison facilities, actually pose little risk to public safety.
Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis has a crippling impact on local economies. An estimated 1.2 Million Oklahomans have a criminal record. That’s more than one in four Oklahomans who have a harder time finding a good job, accessing housing or education because of a criminal conviction. It’s estimated that Oklahoma’s economy loses 4 Billion dollars annually because of lost wages for those with criminal convictions.
With these facts in mind, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is advocating for Oklahoma’s leaders to modernize its archaic and counterproductive criminal code. Lawmakers have introduced a piece of legislation that would help move Oklahoma’s criminal legal policy in the right direction. HB 1792 would modernize Oklahoma’s criminal code with common sense sentencing reform.
Data proves that investing in social services and community resources for crime prevention is a far better solution than investing in or expanding the carceral system. Treatment is much more effective than incarceration at reducing criminal behaviors. Like far too many states, Oklahoma has converted its mental health and addiction crisis into an incarceration crisis. 65% of prisoners nationwide have an active Substance Abuse Disorder.
For Oklahoma, we know that this issue is coupled with a lack of resources as well. Two out of every three Oklahomans in need of mental health or addiction treatment can’t access care with current funding. This means that our communities and local economies are stuck footing a bill for nothing. The average cost of incarceration in Oklahoma is over 3x the cost of treatment.
SQ781 required that any savings from lower incarceration be funneled into the counties to be used for addiction and mental health treatment. The Office of Management and Enterprise Services has certified over 70 million dollars in savings created since 2016 but the legislature has yet to send a cent to the counties as required. This means that the full cost effectiveness of treatment has yet to be utilized because addiction and mental health treatment services are few and far between for our rural counties. Many of our rural Oklahomans have no options to seek treatment through a simple lack of resources. Diverting money to these counties, as was demanded by the people, would help to ensure that every Oklahoman is getting a chance to succeed.
This is why a bill such as SB 844 is crucial this legislative session.
One in three families in Oklahoma go into debt supporting their loved one who is incarcerated. Combine this with the fact that the vast majority of criminal defendants cannot afford to pay leading to highly variable funding sources and higher incarceration, and you can see the immeasurable stress that is placed on families.
Fines and Fees encourage using the black market instead of legitimate work to avoid wage garnishment. As if this is not bad enough, it forces our police to act as debt collectors instead of focusing on public safety.
This can be solved by significantly reducing incarceration for failure to pay and reducing the burden of court fines and fees on Oklahoma families. Courts are vital for public safety and the function of society and they should be funded with revenue and not simply left to the constant fluctuations of fees.
HB 1777 and HB 2259 are two policy proposals that would help relieve the stress of fines and fees on families.
Every Oklahoman is entitled to the presumption of innocence. In theory this means that the burden of proof is always on the government to satisfy a jury or a judge that a defendant is guilty of a crime before that defendant can be deprived of life, liberty or property by the state.
This principle cannot stand when people are held for an exceedingly long pre-trial period. Pre-trial detainment can force individuals to lose their jobs, homes, and family before they have been convicted of anything. What does the presumption of innocence mean in a state where people sit in jail for more than six months because they can’t afford to buy their freedom back from a bondsman? Locking up innocent people in Oklahoma’s jails carries additional risks. Oklahoma has long had one of the highest average annual homicide rates among all the state prison systems in the country from 2001 to 2019, with 14 homicides per 100,000 inmates during that time. South Carolina topped it only slightly with 15 homicides per 100,000 inmates, according to a 2021 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
SB 325, would help guarantee Oklahomans aren’t simply held pre-trial indefinitely without due process. Oklahoma’s pre-trial system must be reformed to keep more families together.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform has long prioritized re-entry and aiding formerly incarcerated people in being able to be successful in their return to society. This is why OCJR developed a re-entry resources guide which helps formerly incarcerated Oklahomans find employment, housing, food banks and resources to set them up for success. While all of these resources are vital, re-entry success is closely tied to quality employment.
Manufacturing, healthcare, and professional services have high job growth forecasts while Oklahoma’s working population is set to decline 4.1% over the next ten years. The United States loses an estimated 78 to 87 million dollars in GDP annually from keeping justice involved individuals out of the workforce. Oklahoma can be a model state in rectifying this wrong by looking at bills such as SB 11 which would incentivize education and work helping move the state closer to education and employment centered re-entry.