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The Unfinished Business of Criminal Justice Reform

September 14, 2017 - 2:45pm CDT

By Jonathan Small

When Oklahoma voters approved State Questions 780 and 781 in 2016, they made themselves perfectly clear: Criminal justice reform is a top priority for Oklahoma.

The success of these questions shows a desire among Oklahomans to break the devastating cycle of recidivism and incarceration by reducing sentences for nonviolent, mostly drug-related crimes and placing increased importance on rehabilitation and work programs.

Unfortunately, criminal justice reform efforts were crowded out in the 2017 legislative session by an executive branch obsession with raising taxes and by the sky-is-falling rhetoric of tax consumers.

At the beginning of the 2017 session, the Justice Reform Task Force published a report with 27 policy proposals from its yearlong study. State legislators turned these into a package of 12 bills designed to move Oklahoma toward a redemptive justice system.

But only three of the 12 bills passed the legislature and were signed into law. And the three that passed were the low-hanging fruit of criminal justice reform; they deal almost exclusively with establishing procedures to better interact with and care for prisoners, assess prisoners’ needs, and provide counseling for victims of domestic violence.

Although still necessary causes, the three bills do nothing to change the sentencing process or stem the flow of nonviolent offenders into permanent incarceration. Nor do they reduce the current prison population or the continuously climbing incarceration rate.

The nine other criminal justice reform bills were introduced but either not heard in committee before the end of the session or not passed by both legislative chambers in alternative versions. The good news is that the majority of these bills are expected to be taken up in the 2018 session and contain most of the remaining policy proposals from the Justice Reform Task Force report.

Oklahoma has the country’s second-highest imprisonment rate. If trends continue, Oklahoma will be number one on this list by 2018. We already lead the nation when it comes to incarcerating women. In 2016, three out of four Oklahomans sent to prison were incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. Compared to our neighbor states, Oklahoma incarcerates many more of these offenders, and we keep them there longer.

Criminal justice reform is too important to disregard, and it’s too important to play politics with. Without reform, Oklahoma is on track to add more than 7,000 inmates in the next decade, according to some reports. This would require three new prisons and cost taxpayers about $2 billion. Every dollar spent here is a dollar that could go to teachers, roads, and bridges, or other vital state services.

Oklahoma must remain dedicated to breaking the cycle of criminality and giving people the chance to restore their lives and find success in society. Warehousing nonviolent offenders or those with drug addiction or mental illness is not the purpose of the criminal justice system or a wise use of tax dollars.

The focus of the 2018 legislative session should be to handle the unfinished business of criminal justice reform.

Jonathan Small is the president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. A Certified Public Accountant, he previously served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden.