OKLAHOMA CITY – On Tuesday (March 9), the State Senate approved Senate Bill 334. According to a press release from Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR), S.B. 334 “would damage the impact of prior criminal justice reforms that safely reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and reinvest in alternatives.”
Criminal Justice Reform leader speaks out
Kris Steele, Executive Director with OCJR, commented on S.B. 334 in a press release sent to The City Sentinel and other news organizations. Steele spoke in response to the upper chamber’s passage of the measure:
“We’re deeply disappointed that legislators voted to undo the will of the people by passing Senate Bill 334 out of the Senate today. This bill rolls back State Question 780, which made simple drug possession and low-level property offenses a misdemeanor, and received overwhelming support from voters in 2016. This comes after four years of the legislature attempting to undo S.Q. 780, despite mounting evidence that the reform is benefiting our state.
“Oklahomans have already spoken on this issue, and the message remains clear: Our state must stop criminalizing addiction, poverty, and mental health crises. S.B. 334 is a step backwards and will increase incarceration and prison spending without making us safer.
“We need additional reform if we want to safely decrease our state’s prison population. We need to reinvest in solutions that actually address the root causes of crime. We need to provide people who commit offenses with treatment that helps them heal, successfully transitions them back into their communities and saves the state money. S.B. 334 is not an evidence-based reform and goes against the will of the people. We urge representatives in the House to vote no on this bill.”
Eight Senate Democrats opposed rolling back reforms in S.Q. 780, and they voted against S.B. 334.
This put them in favor of the reforms enacted through the historic S.Q. 780.
Those senators included Mary Boren of Norman, Jo Anna Dossett of Tulsa, J.J. Dossett of Owasso, Carri Hicks of Oklahoma City, Julia Kirt of Oklahoma City, Kevin Matthews of Tulsa, George Young of Oklahoma City, and Kay Floyd of Oklahoma City, who serves as leader of the Minority Caucus in the Senate.
Three Republicans opposed S.B. 334, including Nathan Dahm of Broken Arrow, Frank Simpson of Springer and Senate President Pro Tempore Great Treat of Oklahoma City.
In all, 35 Republicans voted to reverse some of the S.Q. 780 reforms by supporting S.B. 334.
These included Mark Allen of Spiro, Michael Bergstrom of Adair, David Bullard of Durant, George Burns of Pollard, Bill Coleman of Ponca City, Julie Daniels of Bartlesville, Tom Duggar of Stillwater, Jessica Garvin of Duncan, Chuck Hall of Perry, Warren Hamilton of McCurtain, John Haste of Broken Arrow, Brent Howard of Altus, Darcy Jech of Kingfisher, Shane Jett of Shawnee, Chris Kidd of Waurika, James Leewright of Bristow, Greg McCortney of Ada, John Michael Montgomery of Lawton, Casey Murdock of Felt, and Joe Newhouse of Tulsa.
Also voting to rollback S.Q. 780’s reforms were Lonnie Paxton of Tuttle (author of S.B. 334), Roland Pederson of Burlington, DeWayne Pemberton of Muskogee, Adam Pugh of Edmond, Dave Rader of Tulsa, Cody Rogers of Tulsa, Paul Rosino of Oklahoma City, Rob Standridge of Norman, Brenda Stanley of Midwest City, Blake Stephens of Moore, Zack Taylor of Seminole, Roger Thompson of Okemah, and Darrell Weaver of Moore.
One Democrat, Michael Brooks of Oklahoma City, did not vote and was listed as “excused.”
Back to Back Disappointments
The upper chamber’s approval of Senate Bill 334 marked the second consecutive week with major disappointment for bipartisan advocates of criminal justice reform.
Senate Bill 704, as described in Patrick B. McGuigan’s news story (February 18, 2021) drew high praise from conservative analysts seeking reforms to address spiraling prison costs, as well as broad support from prison reformers across the spectrum of Oklahoma opinion.
That proposal was sponsored by Senator David Rader, a Tulsa Republican. S.B. 704 aimed to address concerns some conservative critics had raised last year in opposition to State Question 805 (which failed on the November 2020 ballot).
Despite attempts to seek discussion of the that reform (which had gained approval in the Public Safety Committee earlier this session), S.B. 704 did not secure a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
As a result of the procedural stiff-arm, S.B. 704 did not, for now, advance in the legislative process.
Frustrating Opposition to incremental criminal justice reform continued
After the November 2020 general election – in a statement first posted on Facebook, McGuigan, founder of CapitolBeatOK.com (an online news service) and publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, commented, “I was proud to support State Question 805, and to carry pro-805 messages on the Facebook pages and websites I manage – and in our November 2020 print edition of The City Sentinel. Although the measure garnered 54 percent [support] in Oklahoma County, it lost statewide.”
McGuigan was co-editor of ‘Crime and Punishment in Modern America‘, a compilation of scholarly conservative and libertarian essays making the case for broad reforms of the criminal justice system, released during the Reagan Administration.
McGuigan has written frequent news stories and commentaries focused on problems with Oklahoma’s death penalty process.
McGuigan said in his post-election comments that The City Sentinel’s editorials and commentaries would advocate for new incremental reforms of the state’s judicial system.
Additionally, McGuigan is a member of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP).
The diverse support coalition for S. Q. 805 included scholars and leaders at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Opponents of S.Q. 805 contended they supported further criminal justice reforms, but “not this state question.” Among their criticisms was the measure was crafted to amend the state constitution, rather than revise statutes.
However, the fate of S.B. 704, a statutory measure, indicates many legislators oppose incremental reforms of state laws that made the Sooner State the nation’s top incarcerator of non-violent offenders.
Many members of the state organization for District Attorneys have opposed every step taken to reform the state’s system, including the November proposition.
Governor Kevin Stitt, who supported incremental criminal justice reforms early in his administration, opposed last November’s ballot initiative, as did other Republican elected officials.
In Oklahoma County, both candidates for Sheriff (Democrat Wayland Cubit and Republican Tommie Johnson, the GOP nominee who won the office on November 3) opposed S.Q. 805.
Another prominent opponent of the ballot proposition was Steve Fair, a high-ranking Republican and a conservative columnist whose essays appear frequently on the CapitolBeatOK website.