The year 2022 is nearly in the rearview mirror, so now is a good time to take stock of where Oklahoma is as a state and where it is headed. This year offered several historic steps forward for the criminal legal system, while also highlighting opportunities for future reform. Advocates, lawmakers, and voters all worked to change how we treat those exiting incarceration, by helping them obtain jobs and become productive members of society, reducing court fines and fees for justice involved children while also successfully reforming community supervision to incentivize completion. 2023 presents a generational opportunity to double down on recent successes, and to invest in data driven solutions to the root causes of crime. There’s never been a better moment to advocate for a criminal legal system in Oklahoma which actually works. Oklahoma shouldn’t be a global anomaly in incarceration - but rather a place where the criminal legal system works for everyone.
The Year In Review
Oklahoma is on a multi-year criminal legal reform journey, from a peak in 2016 to where we stand today, there has been a massive shift with jail and prison populations declining more than 20 percent. 2022 represented another step forward in this journey by changing how Oklahoma treats those with justice involvement . This is an important, and often-times overlooked aspect of the criminal legal system, as 95% of those in prison will be released eventually, and those individuals' success in our communities largely depends on their ability to get a quality job.
With that in mind, lawmakers in 2022 passed new laws to bolster our state’s workforce and help facilitate quality jobs for those exiting incarceration. One example was the vital Clean Slate legislation, which will make expungements automatic for those who qualify in the coming years. Making expungements automatic is a massive relief for the 94% of individuals who are already eligible for an expungement but have yet to receive one. The expungement process is unnecessarily opaque, and as the OSBI states in their FAQ section, “[t]he OSBI strongly suggests you get a lawyer to advise you of the proper actions to take.” The need to hire a lawyer, and the costs associated with that, make receiving an expungement an economic impossibility for many of those eligible. Making expungements automatic will make sure nobody is falling through the cracks, and protect our State’s economy by increasing the labor force in rural areas.
Further, in Oklahoma, an estimated 25% of the workforce must be licensed by the state in order to continue employment in that occupation, and obtaining a license takes an average of 416 days. A criminal conviction shrinks the possible jobs available to those exiting incarceration by making them ineligible for a state issued license. In response, Occupational Licensing Reform was passed during 2022 which ensures that a conviction used to deny a license is related to the occupation the individual is applying for. In this way, it ensures that public safety is truly considered, and a conviction is not used as a proxy for assumed bad moral character and unemployability. Rather, the new law allows denials only in the cases where the crime is directly related to the work being done.
Another important reform eliminated certain fines and fees imposed on juvenile offenders, and removed the mandate that a child’s guardian pay for legal representation. This new law will help alleviate the stress placed on parents - who were previously forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines and fees for their child’s offense - and help allow children to escape generational poverty by strengthening families and communities. This allows more money to be spent in local economies and for the benefit of the children themselves, many of whom will lead law-abiding, and productive adult lives.
Finally, 80% of those released from prisons nationwide wind up on parole so incentivizing successful completion of parole standards becomes an important policy goal. In 2022, Oklahoma saw the establishment of a program that rewards good behavior, where for thirty days of compliance with parole conditions there are thirty days taken off of the back end of the parole sentence. This simultaneously incentives those on community supervision to follow the conditions of parole while allowing overworked parole officers to focus on the first crucial months out of prison. These types of reforms have been wildly successful in other states, such as Missouri, Alaska, and Arkansas, where the overall supervised population has fallen without a related uptick in recidivism rates. This is a step in the right direction to ensure that those exiting incarceration will do so with only as much supervision as necessary to ensure successful re-entry, and that a lighter workload is placed on overburdened parole officers.
We’re Better Together
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is grateful for the 30 plus organizations that work alongside us in our coalition. Across the state, nonprofits have dedicated themselves to uplifting those who are left behind due to our penal system. We’d like to highlight a few that are investing in our community members and allowing them a second chance at life. For a comprehensive list of all organizations working towards a more equal Oklahoma, look at our partner list here.
To highlight just a few of the life-changing opportunities that nonprofits across the state have given to formerly incarcerated peoples this year. The R.I.S.E. Program, a non-profit that teaches incarcerated women cosmetology skills as well as providing wrap-around re-entry services upon release such as housing, employment, and community, has a recidivism rate of 0%! That means not a single woman who has gone through their program has been back to prison. Another incredible program is the Oklahoma County Drug Court, while Oklahoma has 52 drug courts that are all working towards a more rehabilitative system, Oklahoma County’s graduation rate is even better than the statewide average. Oklahoma County is 83% compared to a statewide average of 67%.
Looking Forward To 2023 (Updating Oklahoma’s outdated criminal code
While 2022 represented another step towards a more equitable, efficient, and just criminal legal system, 2023 to advance even more robust reform. Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is focused on bringing systematic change to five key areas of our criminal legal system in 2023.
First, we have the opportunity as a State to modernize our criminal code and reduce Oklahoma’s expensive incarceration crisis. Oklahoma’s prisons are filled with older Americans. Oklahoma state prisons house 72 percent more people over the age of 65 than the national average. Incarcerating older sicker individuals has little value for public safety, and it’s remarkable expensive for taxpayers. Oklahoma is 16th in prison admissions but 3rd in incarceration rate, with that difference being made up almost entirely with overly long sentences. Recent studies have confirmed that these longer sentences have not decreased the crime rate. 33 states, including our neighbors Texas, and Kansas, have lower crime rates on average, and they’ve taken steps to safely reduce incarceration through standardized sentencing. A standardized system can responsibly lower the incarceration rate without an effect on public safety by ensuring that Oklahomans only go to prison long enough to keep the public safe while also making sure that similar crimes are sentenced similarly regardless of the demographics of the offender.
Treatment should be easier to access than prison
Next, although longer sentences do not decrease the crime rate, mental health and substance abuse treatment does. Diversion options, such as the excellent Oklahoma County Drug Court, do more to reduce crime at a cheaper cost than incarceration alone. The Oklahoma voters recognized this when they overwhelmingly supported a plan to reclassify low level drug and property felonies into misdemeanors, and funnel the savings in reduced incarceration into local mental health and substance abuse treatment options. However, in the nearly seven years since that plan was put into action, the legislature has not given the counties a cent. It is time to invest in our local communities and give every Oklahoman a chance to succeed.
Invest in Oklahoma communities, modern solutions and workforce
Relatedly, instead of investing in our local communities, the criminal legal system is actually extracting money from local economies at an alarming rate. One study found that in Oklahoma County, the average individual owed nearly $3,000 in fines and fees to the courts at the time of their most recent misdemeanor conviction. That is money that could be spent at a local small business or to put food on the table for a family. Instead, it is being collected to fund the court system, and as the vast majority of criminal defendants cannot afford to hire an attorney, they likewise cannot afford to pay their fines and fees. This leads to a situation that is not only unfair to the individual, who faces the possibility of returning to incarceration for not having enough money, but also unfair to the court system, who is relying on funding that it will never successfully collect. Fines and Fees Reform will reduce or eliminate overly expensive fines and fees on criminal defendants while also ensuring that the court system has an adequate funding mechanism.
Would you invest in a company without any insight into their products, working methods, and financial results? The answer is obviously no - but Oklahoma expects its citizens to invest in the criminal legal system without any transparency of its inner workings. All that could change in 2023 with a modern data collection system. A data collection and storage system would allow for increased transparency for the public and become an important tool for lawmakers, who are in some ways legislating blind, to get a clear and unbiased look at how our criminal legal system functions.The private sector and other states, including Iowa, have used advanced data analysis to increase efficiency for decades, and in order to streamline the criminal legal system, the data needs to be transparent and available.
Finally, we can do more to incentivize work by crafting and shaping workforce reentry policy. Roughly only 29% of individuals released from incarceration obtain a “high quality job” which is generally a good marker of success, as these jobs are known to reduce instances of violent crime and recidivism generally. Other states, including Iowa, have used the tax code to incentivize these industries into hiring those exiting incarceration through the use of tax credits. Through tax credits, everyone can win, the employer gets a financial incentive, the individual gets a better job, and the community is more stable and safe. The federal system has a very similar carve out, known as the Workforce Opportunity Tax Credit, that has helped to increase jobs for eligible individuals by 32,000 annually. While in Oklahoma, manufacturing, healthcare, and professional services have high job growth forecasts but Oklahoma’s working population is set to decline 4.1% over the next ten years. Getting those exiting incarceration to work strengthens individuals, it strengthens communities, it strengthens Oklahoma.
2022 is nearly over but regular Oklahomans helped create significant steps forward for criminal legal reform in this state. However, there is much more to be done. 2023 is an important year where the criminal justice system can be molded in an image that Oklahomans can be proud of.