OKLAHOMA CITY – Ardent advocates of criminal justice reform are concerned that new laws, enacted Thursday, will disappoint many who have worked for the past decade to change the Sooner State’s status as the American state with the largest rates of incarceration.
This week, Governor Mary Fallin, with the support of the leading advocate of reform , signed into effect several new laws.
Doubters about the broad impact of the measures, however, include not only the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma but also the leading citizen “watchdog” group based in Oklahoma County.
Both of the groups played important roles in advancing ideas for broad reforms in recent years.
Earlier this month, former state Rep. Ryan Kiesel, now director of the state ACLU, deemed the legislation signed this week as “watered down criminal justice reform bills that fail to adequately address Oklahoma’s mass incarceration crisis. Despite efforts of legislative leadership to claim any affirmative step toward reform as a victory, these weak bills barely move Oklahoma’s criminal justice system beyond the abysmal status quo.”
Kiesel said, in comments sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations, “Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is in crisis and these meager reforms do not reflect the urgency of that crisis. While any reform is welcome at this point, these bills are the sorts that we should have passed years ago, instead, these reforms amount to trying to put out a wildfire with a garden hose.”
Offering insights into the legislative process — drawn from his years as a Democratic representative at the Capitol (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/three-mikes-kiesel-and-coffee-brew-oklahoma-s-health-care-debate) — Kiesel continued, “It is no accident that the watered down reforms being touted as progress were cobbled together behind closed doors with prosecutors serving as the architects. District Attorneys and their legislative allies are desperately trying to give the appearance of offering real solutions for our broken criminal justice system, while quietly protecting the miserable status quo. It is more clear than ever that if we are going to bring about the reforms we desperately need, it is not enough for voters to demand change from their legislators.
“Voters should equally demand in the upcoming elections that their elected District Attorney serve as a champion for real reforms, and not just another suit sitting behind closed doors at the state capitol, cutting deals, watering down legislation, and drowning out the voices of hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans demanding real change.”
This spring, the civil liberties group has pointed to polling evidence that Oklahomans by and large are willing to support broader reform and want district attorneys willing to shift the state away from over-incarceration of non-violent offenders.
Kiesel’s organization played a leading role in advocacy for State Questions 780 and 781, which voters approved in the 2016 election. A recent EMC Research poll found 63 percent of S.Q. 780 at present, even higher than the 58 percent support the statutory initiative garnered 18 months ago.
Taken together, the questions shifted classification of many crimes for drug possession and property crimes away from felonies to misdemeanors
“The time for mediocre measures focused on incremental change has passed,” said Allie Shinn, External Affairs Director., in the earlier press release.
“Oklahoma is on track to build two new prisons, tens of thousands of Oklahomans are still incarcerated, alarming racial disparities persist, and the state still struggles to fund our failing system. These bills are merely a drop in the ocean of what is needed to start turning the tide on Oklahoma’s escalating mass incarceration crisis. We cannot continue to rely on the District Attorneys who helped break the system to now reform it.”
In Oklahoma County, meanwhile, leadership for the VOICE Action Fund articulated disappointment with the new laws, deeming them “good steps” but saying there is “more work to do” to impact incarceration rates.
Father Tim Luschen, a Catholic priest and a leader with VOICE, said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, “This was such a unique opportunity. The governor really sounded prepared to champion criminal justice reform, and this is her last year in office. There’s a difference between ‘good steps’ and leaving a legacy, and the Legislature failed to step up to make the changes we need so that we’re not the number one incarcerator of women and so that we’re not dealing with dangerous overcrowded conditions in our prisons.”
Luschen pointed in particular to the lack of focus on “50 percent and 85 percent crimes” (which drive incarceration rates through long mandated terms) as a failure in the new laws.
“We have to keep people in prison who need to be in prison, but we have to do better at rehabilitating people and getting them back into productive lives,” he said.
Sundra Flansburg , another leader with VOICE, reflected, “During this session, a Republican legislator introduced a bill to make S.Q. 780 retroactive, so that the people who already have felonies for simple drug possession would have had a way to have their sentences reclassified as misdemeanors. With one Oklahoman out of every eight having a felony in their background (according to the Department of Corrections), this would have been an amazing opportunity to get people back into the workforce and give them a meaningful second chance.”
She added, “We hope that the legislators and the new governor will be clear that the work of criminal justice reform is ongoing, and not sit back and point to this and say it’s done.”
The state Legislature enacted broad criminal justice reforms in 2012, with Fallin’s support. Then state House Speaker Kris Steele guided the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) into law and Fallin affixed her signatures to the measures to much acclaim at Capitol signing ceremonies.
However, that reform impetus largely stalled and the laws were by and large never implemented. District attorneys led a determined opposition that peeled off Republican support for broad changes, and the process stalled despite annual promises from the chief executive to implement change.
Ultimately, the governor appointed a task force to craft new statutes, but those measures were stymied in the committee process.
One of the most diverse bipartisan coalitions in state history emerged in 2015-16 to press reform through the work of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
With backing from groups such as Right on Crime and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) on the conservative end, and from Oklahoma Policy Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union from the liberal side, votes ratified the two state questions that were the end result.
In 2017, proposals for major reform continued to percolate at the Capitol. Fallin gave new emphasis to the issue, including through her own task force.
But implementation again stalled when the key state House chairman, with the support of Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, bottled up the bills.
Voluntary retirements, renewed pressure from supporters of reform and other developments eventually allowed legislators, this year, to advance the cluster of measures that Fallin signed this week.