Five criminal justice issues to watch in 2022
There was no shortage of criminal justice news to cover in Oklahoma in 2021.
State officials resumed executions after a six-year moratorium and mounting issues at the Oklahoma County Jail drew national attention. Inside state prisons, corrections officials distributed vaccines to the incarcerated and ended prolonged restrictions on prisoner movement and family visitation.
Looking forward to 2022, court rulings and state legislative votes will have a lasting impact on the future of criminal justice in Oklahoma.
Here are five justice-related issues worth following in the coming year:
A trial on the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection drug mix is set to begin on Feb. 28 at the U.S. District Courthouse in Oklahoma City.
Death row prisoner Richard Glossip filed the lawsuit in federal court in June 2014, weeks after Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack 40 minutes after state officials injected him with execution drugs. Dozens of condemned men have since joined the complaint. In August, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot ruled that the lawsuit could proceed to trial.
The prisoners argue that the state’s use of the sedative midazolam causes unconstitutionally cruel and unusual suffering. The state contends that its protocols, not the drugs, caused prior execution mishaps, and it has since worked diligently to tighten up its execution procedures.
If the court rules Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol is unconstitutional, the state constitution permits execution by nitrogen gas and firing squad. Both methods would likely face legal challenges by death row prisoners.
Oklahoma carried out two executions in 2021, executing John Marion Grant on Oct. 28 and Bigler Jobe “Bud” Stouffer II on Dec. 9. Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones to life without the possibility of parole just before noon on Nov. 18, four hours before he was scheduled to die.
Grant convulsed two dozen times and vomited after the sedative midazolam was administered, media witnesses reported. Stouffer’s execution was carried out without the same issues.
The state plans to carry out two executions in 2022: Donald Grant on Jan. 27 and Gilbert Postelle on Feb. 17.
Lawmakers will weigh an overhaul to Oklahoma’s criminal sentencing code that could cause the state prison population to creep up over the next decade.
Unlike most states, Oklahoma doesn’t use a sentencing matrix. Criminal offenses are instead scattered throughout the state statute with a sentencing range set by the legislature.
In April, the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Reclassification and Coordination Council finalized a proposal to categorize all felony offenses by severity. A group of 22 state lawmakers, district attorneys, law enforcement agency officials and a retired judge served on the task force. Members were instructed to make recommendations that would reduce or hold neutral the state prison population.
Taskforce members say the classification system would give criminal justice stakeholders, from defense attorneys to prosecutors to jurors, a better grasp of the criminal code and how long a person sentenced to prison would be incarcerated before becoming eligible for release.
Justice reform advocates said the plan could lead to longer prison sentences for people convicted of drug and property offenses. During an October interim study, FWD.us criminal justice policy analyst Felicity Rose told lawmakers that the reform proposal could increase the state prison population by 1,000 over the next decade.
The legislature can accept, modify or reject the task force’s proposal. The legislation filing deadline is Jan. 20 and the regular session convenes on Feb. 7.
Oklahoma County officials could in 2022 finalize plans to build a new detention center.
The current Oklahoma County Jail facility, which opened in 1992, has been chronically overcrowded and understaffed for decades. In a 2008 report, The U.S. Department of Justice detailed violence, extreme overcrowding, abuse of detainees and medical neglect inside the facility. The same issues persist more than a decade later.
On Nov. 29, the Oklahoma County Jail Trust voted unanimously to recommend a new 1,800-bed detention center, with 400 beds for detainees with mental health or medical issues, be constructed. Its suggestions were forwarded to the Oklahoma County Commissioners for further consideration.
The proposed jail would cost about $300 million and open sometime in 2025 or 2026. Construction of the facility would likely be funded through a combination of citizen-approved general obligation bonds and money from the American Rescue Plan.
State lawmakers will consider legislation that would expedite access to competency restoration treatment for individuals deemed not mentally unfit to stand trial.
State Sen. Michael Bergstrom, R-Adair, filed a bill this month that would allow pretrial detainees to receive competency treatment at their place of incarceration under certain circumstances. Currently, defendants deemed not competent to stand trial must wait several months for bed space to open at the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita.
“The Forensic Center simply doesn’t have enough bed space to meet the demand,” Bergstrom said in a statement. “For men awaiting competency treatment, there’s a five month wait, and it’s six months for women. Under my legislation, treatment may be made available at the jail, reducing the backlog and ensuring trials can move forward in a more timely way.”
The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services would be authorized to provide off-site treatment if bed space at the forensic center is unavailable within 30 days of a person being deemed incompetent to stand trial, Bergstrom said.
The Frontier published an article in June that found people suffering from severe mental illness were waiting months in county jails for treatment at state hospitals.
Watch for legislation that would increase starting pay for state correctional officers or modify the Department of Corrections’ hiring requirements.
The agency is struggling to hire and retain prison officers. Budget documents show that as of Oct. 31, the corrections department employed 1,288 corrections officers, down from 1,588 on Dec. 31, 2020.
While businesses nationwide have reported hiring difficulties, the consequences of understaffing are greater in correctional facilities, where a shortage of workers can increase the likelihood of violence or lead to substandard living conditions for prisoners.
Low starting pay and demanding working conditions have made it difficult for the agency to keep frontline workers. The starting hourly wage for a correctional officer is $15.74, a rate many restaurants and retailers are now competing with.
Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals group, said in an interview earlier this month that he plans to push legislation that would raise the agency’s starting wage from $15.74 per hour to $20 per hour. That higher starting wage would allow Oklahoma to more effectively compete with neighboring states like Texas and Kansas, which pay correctional officer recruits at least $18 per hour.
The Department of Corrections believes younger workers could help alleviate staffing shortages. During an Oct. 27 meeting, the Board of Corrections approved a legislative request that would lower the agency’s minimum hiring age from 20 to 18. It’s too early to tell if lawmakers will take up the bill.
Prison officials have not yet detailed where the teenage detention officers would be authorized to work, though the agency’s request states that 18- and 19-year-olds would have limited job responsibilities.
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.