2021:  Oklahoma Criminal Justice Reform Steps Forward, Steps Back

The Oklahoma Legislature is entering the final stretch of its 2021 session. 

It’s time to recap some of the major wins, losses, and what’s on the horizon for advocates of criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. 

Remember: every bill has a long and complicated life cycle before it becomes law. 

Policy must first be approved by House and Senate committees, then voted on by the full House and Senate. Depending on the vote, a bill either dies or heads to the Governor’s desk for a signature. Once the Governor signs a bill, it becomes law. 

If anyone challenges the law in court, a court can strike it down if the law infringes on constitutional rights or for any number of other reasons. 

Criminal Justice Reform WINS

Lawmakers introduced a wealth of terrific bills proposed to remedy Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. Here is a list of the best of the bunch that have made it over the finish line so far. These lists are not exhaustive (there are hundreds of bills filed each year) but here are some of the bills we’ve been watching most closely: 

SB511 - This is a harm reduction bill that allows needle exchanges to operate free from fear of prosecution. This is a big win for harm reduction in Oklahoma. It was signed into law last week.

SB1679 - Also called the Sarah Stitt Act, HB1679 was signed into law last week. 

This law will allow people who are about to leave prison to obtain an ID, a Social Security Card, a practice job interview, and vocational/training records detaining the person has accomplished while incarcerated. 

This will help ease reentry concerns and hopefully allow folks to apply for employment, housing, and drivers’ licenses more quickly.

HB1799 - This bill was signed into law by Governor Stitt. It relaxes restrictions on expungement of juvenile records. It is always important to make it easier for those who committed crimes as young people to earn a path toward a clean slate. This bill is an important step towards that reality. 

HB1880 - This is a restorative justice pilot program run by the District Attorney’s Council. It creates a pilot within the deferred prosecution agreement that would operate as a type of mediation with an agreement not to prosecute if the agreement is upheld. Here’s a deeper dive into restorative justice. This bill was signed into law by Governor Stitt and authorizes a pilot that will last for five years. 

HB2877 - This law change allows officers to help people suffering from mental health crises to access telemedicine so their mental health concerns can be addressed. It was signed into law last week. This will be especially impactful in rural areas where people can be hundreds of miles from the closest mental health provider.

SB3 - In conjunction with HB2877, this bill authorizes the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to pick someone up out of law enforcement custody and transport them to a hospital or treatment center so that they can be treated for mental health symptoms. This was signed into law last week.

SB44 - This law change requires that any failure to appear warrants issued while a person was in custody (either another jail or in prison) be dismissed. Adding failure to appear warrants and additional fees on people who could never have made it to court doesn't make financial sense and it’s fundamentally unfair. Governor Stitt signed this important bill into law last week. 

SB140 - This bill increased the age of participation on the Delayed Sentencing Program for Young Adults to 25 years old from 21 years old. This means folks aged 18 to 25 are eligible for this program. Knowing that juvenile brains are fundamentally different from adult brains, and they don’t fully develop until age 25, it makes sense to expand this option. We applaud this research and data backed law change. The bill was signed into law last week.

Criminal Justice Reform LOSSES:

Several great policies did not make it past the finish line this year. Given that Oklahoma’s prison population is expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, it is especially unfortunate that opportunities to reduce incarceration were bypassed. In addition to halting meaningful reform, there were also a large number of policies proposing new felonies, extending sentencing, and likely constitutional rights infringements. 

SB704  - The most ambitious sentencing reform bill brought this session, SB704 is authored by Senator Dave Rader from Tulsa. 

The legislation would have extremely limited sentence enhancements for the majority of non-violent crimes. Research has shown that Oklahoma has 79% longer sentences for drug crimes and 70% longer sentences for property crimes largely due to sentence enhancements on those with prior felony convictions.

This bill was stalled in the Senate appropriations committee. There was fear from some opponents this proposal would interfere with the Attorney General’s Felony Reclassification plan. The reclassification proposal was released last month and, according to research by advocacy group Fwd US, would add about 1000 prison beds to the system over the next 10 years. 

SB704 is dormant this year but it can be resurrected in the 2022 session.

SB209 - This bill by Senator George Young of Oklahoma City  would have required racial impact statements on any bills that add new felonies or lengthen sentences. This bill failed in the Rules committee and is dead for this session and next (but the language can be placed in another bill). Getting transparency to how criminal law changes will impact people of color is a crucial step to deconstructing the harmful system we have created. Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate per capita of African Americans in the country.

HB2567 - The so-called Hospice Care Work Program would have allowed inmates assigned to jobs that provide hospice/end-of-life care in prison to be able to apply work experience during incarceration toward a certification of Nurse’s Aide upon release. 

This bill was based on a successful program operating in Louisiana prisons. This bill did not advance past the Senate Appropriations committee and was not heard. It can still be brought back next session. 

HB2320 - This bill would have allowed juries to recommend deferred or suspended sentencing. 

Currently the District Attorney is the only person allowed to offer someone a deferred or suspended sentence through plea bargaining (these are essentially “probation” with some important procedural differences). HB2320 was not heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It can still be heard there in 2022. 

HB1643 - A controversial new law that adds a misdemeanor crime for anyone who publishes personal information about a law enforcement officer or elected county official was signed into law last week. The prosecutor would need to prove that the sharing of the information was done with “intent to threaten, intimidate or harass, or facilitate another to threaten, intimidate or harass,” in order to get a conviction. This personal information could be a badge number, name, or address. The punishment provided is: up to 1 year in the county jail and up to a $2000 fine. Many critics have spoken out against this law change, saying it will chill efforts to hold law enforcement accountable when they over step, hurt, or kill someone.

SB35 - This bill was widely supported by organizations in Oklahoma. It would have required counsel to be appointed to anyone in court who could show they recieve some type of public assistance (SNAP/Medicaid). This bill did not make it past committee but can be resurrected next session. 

Reforms Still In the Pipeline:

HB1795 - An important drivers license reform bill authored by Representatives Miller and Senator David hit a snag in recent weeks. The bill would have prevented license revocations for anyone with misdemeanor possession charges, those who were merely passengers in a car during a felony, and also provisional licenses for those who have convictions and need to get to work. The bill was gutted over fears it would interfere with federal highway funds, and only the provisional licence part remained. Coalition members are working hard to get the language restored and there should be more to come on this reform in the coming weeks. The provisional license portion of the bill is moving forward, and it is unclear if the other reforms will be placed into another vehicle, or if HB1795 will be put back together before it passes the finish line.

SB320 - Medical Parole reform that will broaden eligibility for medical parole was passed by both houses and is awaiting signing by the Governor.

SB456 - This bill expands eligibility for GPS monitoring (instead of serving time in prison some people can serve their time in the community while on an ankle monitor). It is waiting to be signed by the Governor.

HB2879 - The Violence Prevention Innovation Fund is a survivor-led granting board that would be able to make grants to community organizations that serve victims of violence. These grants can be for innovative pilot programs (like Housing First programs) or for general operating capitol. This bill is expected to go through the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budgeting. This process takes up April and May. It may be later in the month of May before it’s clear if this bill will move forward. 

What Will the Future Bring?

There are a lot of moving parts to criminal justice reform. This concept can encompass police reform, bail/pretrial reform, corrections reform, sentencing reform, and release/reentry reform. In Oklahoma, we need it all. There is major work to be done in the coming months on sentencing reform due to the Attorney General’s proposal. In addition, continued deaths and inaction in Oklahoma County Jail will likely lead to an effective call for substantive Bail Reform. Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform will be reaching out to communities and stakeholders across the state to hear what you think the next steps on reform should be.