Study Finds Justice Reform Bills Would Bring 14 Percent Prison Growth. Is That a Success?
This story was updated April 17.
Oklahoma’s prison population will continue to grow in the years ahead — the only question is how much.
A marquee slate of criminal justice reform bills fall short of what Gov. Mary Fallin’s Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, a little over a year ago, recommended to curb incarceration rates and provide alternatives to prison.
By 2025, the prison population will be 30,947 if the six bills are signed into law, according to an analysis from FWD.us, a national group that specializes in immigration and criminal justice data. Without any legislation, the figure would be 35,798.
Either scenario would be up from the April 15 inmate population of 27,068, with another 1,146 inmates in county jails waiting for transfer. Prisons are operating at 112 percent capacity.
Fallin’s task force recommendations, in comparison, would eliminate all growth and drive the population below 27,000.
But it’s not all bad news for criminal justice reform advocates.
On Tuesday, the Senate approved four of the six key bills, which stalled in conference committee at the end of last year’s regular legislative session. The House approved two. The bills still must go to the opposite chambers and then on to the governor.
The legislation offers changes advocates have clamored for, in areas such as “technical” parole violations and reducing sentences for additional low-level, nonviolent offenses.
Yet advocates argue much work remains to be done.
The bills touch a bevy of issues: probation violations, sentencing for habitual offenders and more. Revised language has trickled out in conference committee, but the bills still face votes in both chambers of the statehouse.
The District Attorneys Council worked with Gov. Mary Fallin and legislators to draft the revised bills, which are likely to be brought up for floor votes any day. Fallin appeared with district attorneys at a March 5 press conference to announce the agreed-upon language.
The chairman of the council said the bills reflect a common-sense approach and are a compromise that will benefit the state.
Kevin Buchanan, who represents Washington and Nowata counties, said the amended bills have good representation from “every aspect of the criminal justice system.”
Kris Steele, chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and a former speaker of the state House, said the bills are the start of broad criminal justice reform.
“The prison population in Oklahoma unfortunately will continue to grow. But I think these bills do represent progress, and these bills are a foundation that we can continue to build upon,” he said.
Four of the five criminal justice reform bills that the Senate approved Tuesday are expected to keep prison population growth down; one deals with felony expungements for those released from prison.
The bills include Senate Bill 649 for habitual offenders and SB 786, which eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for burglaries and allows judges to sentence offenders up to seven years in prison, which is the current maximum. The bill also creates a new felony, third-degree burglary for breaking into vehicles, which carries up to a five-year prison term. Senators also passed SB 689, which more clearly defines technical probation violations, and SB 793, which changes penalties for drug offenses and distinguishes between possession with intent to distribute, distribution and manufacturing.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, told reporters afterward that the impact will be a “drop in the expected growth” of the prison population. Long term, he said, funding availability will determine additional reforms, such as creating intermediate revocation centers, which serve as an alternative to prison for probation violators.
“We wanted to change the long-term trajectory in Oklahoma,” he said. “We cannot afford to stay on the course we are on.”
Separately, the House passed two key criminal justice reform bills Tuesday that will go the Senate. They are House Bill 2281, which lowers penalties for low-level property crimes, including larceny and forgery, and HB 2286, which creates an administrative parole process for well-behaved, compliant nonviolent offenders. The bill also makes it easier for inmates who are 60 and older to get paroled when they are determined not to be a public safety risk.
Another bill won’t help reduce prison population growth but will help people clean their records and make finding jobs easier. With a 38-0 vote, senators passed SB 650, which allows offenders with nonviolent felonies on their records to apply for expungement. They qualify to apply five years after finishing their sentences, including probation, provided they have stayed out of trouble.
By 2025, the legislation would reduce the prison population by nearly 5,000 inmates. But even with that projected reduction, the population would still be up from the current count.
Steele, who is also a member of the state’s pardon and parole board, said proposed reforms in the parole process are a big help. House Bill 2286 has a provision allowing administrative parole for nonviolent offenders, which streamlines the process and makes it automatic for incarcerated people who qualify and stay out of trouble while in prison.
“There’s a pretty strong incentive for them to be released and I think that reform is very much a step in the right direction,” Steele said.
Another bill, Senate Bill 649, which targets nine offenses, reduces the penalties for repeat offenders for theft- and forgery-related crimes.
“We would prefer that the reforms apply to all nonviolent offenses, but again this is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Mimi Tarrasch, director of Tulsa’s Women in Recovery program, said long prison sentences for habitual offenders aren’t the answer. Instead, it’s important to address root causes and provide long-term intervention for addicts. Oftentimes, a 30-day or 60-day treatment program simply isn’t enough, she said.
“It’s devastating to the women. It’s devastating to the children. It becomes devastating to families,” she said of the toll of incarceration on those in prison and those on the outside.
That’s why SB 649, which addresses the issues of habitual offenders, is a good step in the right direction, she said.
Another bill, SB 689, offers some clarity on what constitutes technical probation violations, giving more leeway to people on probation before they get sent back to prison for things such as missing court-ordered curfews or meetings with parole officers.
“We should not be sending people to prison for technical violations, at least not immediately,” Steele said.
Buchanan said he hasn’t seen advocates’ population projections but says the measures will help the criminal justice system while protecting the public.
“I think the result of what we did is more appropriate in terms of public safety than what they are suggesting,” he said. “I think our result probably gives more weight and is a little more thoughtful in terms of public safety than theirs was but we’re still achieving the goals.”