The Criminal Justice Reform Successes of the 2023 Legislative Session

Oklahoma’s 2023 legislative session was characterized by historic debates. After 8 years of delay state lawmakers finally invested millions into the SQ 781 fund, a voter created fund designed to invest incarceration savings into county based treatment and diversion services. This year’s $12.5 Million investment represents a first down payment towards helping counties reduce Oklahoma’s mental health and addiction crisis. The Legislative Office Of Fiscal Transparency estimates that more than 100 K Oklahomans need mental health services that they can’t currently access. Millions for new treatment resources statewide will make a real difference.

This session policymakers also passed a transformational failure to pay reform, designed to dramatically reduce the number of failure to pay warrants issued in Oklahoma. This will have a positive impact on both urban communities of color and low-income rural Oklahoma families. Lawmakers also approved reforms to supervision, youth fines and fees, misdemeanor warrants and significant investments in education access for those housed in Corrections. Unfortunately, Oklahoma still faces tremendous criminal legal system challenges. State lawmakers have once again attempted to undue the will of voters by trying to roll back voter approved reforms from 2016. Lawmakers once again failed to update and standardize Oklahoma’s needlessly long prison sentences which have filled state prisons with disproportionately older Oklahomans who pose little risk to public safety. State policymakers should commit themselves to reducing Oklahoma’s expensive incarceration crisis by sentencing reform, investing in employment and housing centered reentry and continuing to work to make treatment easier to access than incarceration.  

SB 844 finally delivers treatment funding to counties

SB 844 authored by Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah and Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond will deliver millions of dollars to local addiction and mental health treatment that Oklahoma voters demanded in 2016. This bill completes the work started by SQ780 and SQ781 by appropriating the savings created by reducing the prison population for low level drug and property crimes to counties to be used for addiction and mental health treatment. The Office of Management and Enterprise Services or OMES has certified over 70 million dollars in savings created by these reforms, including over 25 million dollars since 2020, but the legislature is only now sending funds to the counties as required. Research shows that addiction treatment is cheaper and leads to better outcomes when compared to incarceration.  The average cost of incarceration in Oklahoma is over 3x  the cost of treatment . These treatment benefits are also proven to reduce crime. Each additional treatment facility reduces the cost of crime in a county by 4.2 Million annually on average. SB844 will appropriate over 12 million dollars to counties for mental health and substance abuse treatment which will save Oklahoma money while increasing community safety.

HB 2259 transforms court debt collection in Oklahoma

House Bill 2259 authored by Rep. Danny Sterling, R-Tecumseh, and Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus dramatically improves policy around the processing and collecting of court financial obligations owed by defendants. The new system was developed by the “Cost Administration Implementation Committee” composed of district judges, municipal judges, court clerks, county sheriffs, advocates for defendants and the Administrative Director of the Courts. This historic reform  was developed with years of collaboration between system stakeholders. The bill  exempts child support income, payments received from federal, state, or tribal government need-based or disability assistance programs, and assets exempt from bankruptcy from being considered in determining the ability to pay. HB 2259 also creates a presumption that any Oklahoman who is designated totally disabled, those receiving various government need-based financial support, or whose total income is under 150% of the federal poverty level are eligible for full or partial waiver of costs. The bill also creates an administrative “moat” of procedures required before a failure to pay warrant can be issued. According to a study in Oklahoma County, non-white individuals owing fines and fees are more likely to have a failure to pay warrant issued and more likely to be arrested despite paying fines and fees at a similar rate to their white counterparts. This legislation will have a disproportionately positive impact on Black communities containing the highest concentrations of court debt and failure to pay warrants in the state.

2023 saw setbacks and opportunities for Criminal legal reform

HB 2153 is a negative sentencing policy that advanced this session. The bill makes a fourth simple drug possession offense a felony - directly contradicting the will of Oklahoma voters who continue to overwhelmingly support treating addiction as a public health issue. HB 2153 also ignores the weight of evidence demonstrating the efficacy of treatment over incarceration. Treatment courts are under resourced across the state. Tulsa and Oklahoma County have the resources to support diversion, but both counties have far more need than they have capacity. Furthermore there are 77 counties in Oklahoma. Most of them have no misdemeanor drug court or diversion program. Many of them have no mental health court and there is no statewide standard of care for these treatment courts. Before courts attempt to use the threat of a felony sentence to coerce someone into treatment programs those treatment programs should actually exist. HB 2153 creates a two tiered justice system for rural and urban Oklahomans. If you happen to live in one of the many Oklahoma counties with few treatment resources, then you’re more likely to be saddled with the lifelong barriers of a felony. Lawmakers must ensure treatment options are robust across the state. A different zip code shouldn’t mean a different access to justice.

In 2023 Oklahoma’s lawmakers also made significant positive strides around supervision reform, youth fines and fees, reentry investments and misdemeanor warrants. SB 77 makes the fee imposed on the parents or guardians of a Youthful Offender for a certification study discretionary - which should help to limit unnecessary fines and fees.  HB 2490 creates a new law which allows for the re-evaluation of long suspended sentences allowing those who are suffering from extremely long community sentences to demonstrate rehabilitation and have their sentences ended or shortened. Finally, HB 2041 creates new language that allows for law enforcement to issue a verbal warning instead of an arrest for a misdemeanor warrant.

These reforms will improve the lives of system impacted Oklahomans, but there is so much work left to do. Oklahoma’s leaders are spending money that we don’t have to produce outcomes that we don’t want. States like Kansas pay a lot less per citizen on state prisons, and they’re seeing significantly less crime. Oklahoma’s taxpayers deserve crime reduction strategies that actually work. Treatment should be easier to access than prisons. Education and housing should be the foundation of our reentry systems, and Oklahoma needs a criminal code that makes sense.  By following the evidence and making meaningful investments in communities, Oklahoma’s policymakers could fundamentally improve the trajectory of our state.