Patrick B. McGuigan, Publisher
OKLAHOMA CITY – At a late March state Capitol event, the American Civil Liberties of Oklahoma — in collaboration with Smart Justice Oklahoma — pressed legislators to advance promised criminal justice reforms in the current legislative session.
In conjunction with a lobbying day they hosted at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, leaders of the organizations advocated for those whom say have no voice.
In a March 28 Facebook post, ACLU OK observed, “With no agreement on recurring revenue or budget solutions, there has never been a greater need to find savings and better utilize our resources. The Oklahoma Criminal Justice Reform Task Force proposed policy changes that would save $1.9 billion over the next ten years. More than halfway through the 2018 session, we don’t even know the impact, if any, of the most recent round of watered down compromise.”
Journalist Lauren Daniels, reporting for KFOR (Channel 4) reported the comments of Nicole McAfee, who works with ACLU and Smart Justice: “I’m here today because those most directly impacted by the failures of our criminal justice system can’t speak out. They don’t have the option of a work stoppage, they can’t walk out. They’ve been locked away often out-of-sight and out-of-mind.”
“Because of budget woes and lack of dedicated funding, district attorneys have been incentivized against reform to the extent they must depend on fines and fees to run their offices,” said Stan Basler, a Methodist minister and leader with the VOICE (Voices Organized in Civic Engagement) group that supported the day at the Capitol.
In a prepared statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, The City Sentinel, and other news organizations, Basler said, “Now, the Oklahoma Senate is considering driving our state $800 million in debt to build more prisons while the will of the people in passing State Question 781 was to dedicate funding to treatment options, diversion solutions, and reentry support. We got in this mess by ignoring the problems and the solutions–let’s choose to sit down now and find the smart way forward.” The VOICE group works on a range of policy concerns.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute of Tulsa, which has worked in the broad coalition advocating criminal justice reforms in recent years, found in a report (as summarized in a March 27 ACLU release) that “in the run-up to the implementation of State Question 780, which redefined some felony charges as misdemeanors, the rate of felony cases involving drug possession rose by more than 16 percent.”
Since State Question 780 took legal effect on July 1, 2017, such charges have “plummeted more than 70 percent,” as ACLU OK summarized the OK Policy report. Observers of the process caution, however, that the impact of S.Q. 780 and 781 has been restricted by legislative lethargy in implementing provisions within the two statutory measures.
Allie Shinn, director of external affairs for the ACLU of Oklahoma, noted that organizations stretching across all political divides in Oklahoma have “advocated for and supported reform efforts for years. However, they were not included when the Governor and legislative leaders stood with district attorneys and announced their latest reform compromises. Weeks later, we still don’t know the final language of the legislation or whether it will do anything to address our still-growing prison population. This is unacceptable.”
Shinn continued, “District attorneys have defied the will of voters by working against the passage and implementation of S.Q. 780 at every turn. Many of these elected officials remain unchallenged in their upcoming elections this November. They are the group most responsible for driving our incarceration rate, now set to be the highest per capita in the country. Why do they get to determine public policy when they have proven woefully inadequate at addressing mass incarceration?”
The press conference Shinn referenced in the foregoing quote took place on March 5. At that event, Gov. Mary Fallin was joined by Republican legislative leaders and district attorneys to say long-anticipated criminal justice reforms, advancing policy ideas from Fallin’s task force on criminal justice, would move forward in the current legislative session.
However, the actual content of the measures remains unclear.
At a March 7 press conference, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the group that organized and gained support for the historic ballot propositions overwhelming approved by voters in 2016, also called for implementation of promised reforms.
In her March 27 story, Channel 4 reporter Daniels said she had talked to a representative for the office of House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, who promised they anticipated (in Daniels words) “criminal justice bills to begin moving forward next week without any issue.”
Broad criminal justice reforms passed the state Legislature in 2012 and were signed into law by Gov. Fallin, but for the most part those measures have never been implemented. Those measures were built on successful evidence-based reforms enacted in several American states, including in Texas during the Rick Perry administration.
In 2016, Oklahoma voters passed two statutory ballot initiatives that would trigger significant reductions in state incarceration rates, but proposals to implement those measures mostly died in the 2017 legislative session.
NOTE: Patrick B. McGuigan, publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, has reported on efforts to enact criminal justice reforms in Oklahoma since 1990. He is the co-editor of Crime and Punishment in Modern America (University Press of America, 1986). For insight on the delay in promised reforms for Oklahoma in recent years, click here.