Interim studies begin this month at the Oklahoma Capitol. These studies serve as a deep dive into specific policy issues that are presented to lawmakers while the state legislature is not in session. Interim studies offer a chance for legislators to learn more deeply about an issue that may have slipped through the cracks for one reason or another. This summer Oklahoma’s criminal legal reform coalition is focused on several interim studies designed to educate lawmakers and the public on the best practices to build a criminal legal system that functions for everyone while keeping Oklahomans safe.
Workforce Strategies to Strengthen Reentry
Representative Nicole Miller requested an interim study on potential strategies to increase the job opportunities for those leaving prison and reentering society. Stable employment is one the biggest indicators of success post release and currently it can be extremely difficult for people with a criminal record to get a stable job. Obtaining a quality job when returning home from prison is crucial to whether an individual returns to crime or not.
The Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education offers training for incarcerated individuals in a variety of high demand and stable fields. However, these programs are underfunded. Over the last ten years the budget for inmate job training and development has been lowered by 14%. Oklahoma can invest in workforce training for the formerly incarcerated as a method to reduce crime and keep Oklahomans safe.
The people of Oklahoma overwhelmingly voted in support of State Question 780, and its companion State Question 781 in 2016. These initiatives demanded that the State Government increase investments in county based crime prevention methods like mental health and addiction services. This change in priorities was accomplished by requiring the savings created from reducing the prison population be reinvested in front end services that help to reduce crime. However, the SQ781 funds have never been used as intended. Representative Justin Humphrey has proposed an interim study to understand why the legislature has not followed the law.
OMES has calculated the savings to be close to 100 million dollars since 2018. Although OMDHAS did receive some money for their excellent Smart on Crime Initiatives, counties are struggling to help those in need at the local level. The people of Oklahoma, in passing SQ781, indicated their belief that the local government is best suited to understand the needs and available resources in each county. The legislature needs to follow the will of the Oklahoma people, and invest in crime prevention strategies at the local level.
The Fiscal Impact of Crime
Senator Dave Rader is leading an interim study focused on prison culture and the fiscal impact of crime. As discussed more at length here, Oklahomans are less safe and less free than surrounding states with much of the blame being placed on excessive sentencing.
Kansas, which has a sentencing guideline matrix on the books, has both a lower incarceration rate and a lower crime rate. There is no evidence to suggest that long prison sentences decrease crime and in some cases, they may actually increase it - with one study finding longer sentences created more professional criminals. Finally, longer sentences destabilize family units and negatively impact job prospects after release, creating a cycle of poverty into incarceration and then back into poverty after release. A sentencing guideline in the Kansas model would go a long way towards ensuring that Oklahomans are only in prison as long as necessary, and that the criminal justice system is working to keep Oklahomans safe.
Court System Funding
The court system in Oklahoma is funded on the backs of the lowest income communities in rural and urban Oklahoma. In these communities struggling families are assessed enormous fines and fees which are collected to keep the lights on in courthouses across the state. Representative Danny Williams and Senator Roger Thompson are leading an interim study to investigate this funding model. Oklahoma has seen a huge decrease in general appropriation funding for Courts since 2003, meaning that Courts are relying on fines and fees at an increasing rate. This serves to heighten the perverse incentives for courts and DAs, who decide the amount of fees assessed but also benefit from setting the fines and fees as high as possible.
A recent Harvard University study in Oklahoma County found that 80% of criminal defendants were unable to make a single payment on their fines meaning this funding mechanism is extremely inconsistent. The money is difficult to collect and highly variable. The Courts and DAs undeniably deserve a consistent and secure source of funding. Collecting fines and fees is not only an ineffective funding mechanism, but a significant driver of poverty amongst justice involved individuals.
Oklahoma deserves the best practices to build a criminal legal system that works, but shaping the best practices requires the best data. Representative Humphrey is leading an interim study on the data collection processes of the State. Currently, there is no way to reliably access data from important parts of the criminal legal system, such as county jail or prosecution data on an aggregate statewide basis. The data is either non-existent, disorganized, or not easily shared with the public and policymakers. Having good data informs legislators and voters of potential systemic problems, stress points and solutions, as well as holds elected officials and the criminal legal system accountable for the best outcomes.
Instead of being focused on conservative or liberal policies, Oklahoma should be focused on data driven solutions that maximize the criminal legal system for all stakeholders. Robust data collection efforts have already been pursued in Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and Utah, to name a few and the private sector has used data collection to increase efficiency for decades. Oklahoma can follow suit and catch up towards the future, allowing policymakers and the public at large to build a criminal legal system that works.
Possession With Intent to Distribute
Representative Daniel Pae is leading an interim study exploring Possession with Intent to Distribute (PWID), a law that criminalizes the distribution of drugs and carries much larger sentences than simple possession. The current law is silent regarding the specific amount of drugs necessary to trigger PWID, as well as any other common indication that someone is attempting to sell drugs. In fact, the comments to the Oklahoma Model Jury Instructions for PWID specifically clarify that no specific amount is necessary to charge.
Oklahoma voters passed SQ780 and SQ781 by a significant majority, indicating their desire to treat addiction as a public health issue and not a criminal legal one. However, after the passage of State Question 780, prison admissions for Possession with Intent to Distribute began to rise at a nearly identical rate as the decline in simple possession, indicating that these charges are interchangeable without a clear statutory basis to direct the factual findings by the Court or Jury. A clarification of the PWID statute would ensure that those who are actually dealing drugs are dealt with accordingly but those who are simply possessing drugs are not unnecessarily charged with a felony in direct contravention of the will of the people.
Other Studies We Have Our Eye On
Representative Justin Humphrey is leading an interim study on community supervision. Oklahomans serve the 4th highest average probation term in the nation despite research indicating that longer probation sentences do not decrease the likelihood of a return to crime.
Representative John Pfieffer is leading an interim study on Sheriffs compensation. Oklahoma is in the bottom 10 states for Sheriff’s pay while research has indicated that a higher paid police force can help reduce crime and keep our citizens safe.
Senator Jessica Garvin is leading an interim study on Substance Abuse Treatment options for Youth. According to ODMHSAS, 6% of Oklahoma’s teenagers are struggling with addiction while 9 out of 10 adults struggling with substance abuse in Oklahoma started as teens. This study will explore options to create and fund programs to help detained teens deal with addiction.
Representatives Daniel Pae and Jon Echols are leading an interim study on Substance Abuse Treatment and Addiction Prevention in adults. According to research nearly 65% of all individuals incarcerated suffer from a substance abuse disorder. This interim study will explore alternative health research to combat addiction and help to ensure that addiction is treated as a public health issue and not a criminal legal one.
This summer offers a great opportunity for Oklahoma’s criminal legal system reform coalition to get numerous issues in front of lawmakers. Oklahoma deserves a criminal legal system that works for everyone while also keeping Oklahomans safe. These interim studies are the first step to crafting future policies that will impact the state and make Oklahoma a model for criminal legal reforms across the nation.