Ac­tion needed on jus­tice re­form bills

The Oklahoman - - OPINION -

IN the­ory, leg­isla­tive con­fer­ence com­mit­tees are used to work out dif­fer­ences be­tween the House and Se­nate ver­sions of a bill. The reality is that bills sent to com­mit­tee fre­quently lan­guish, or when they emerge the re­sult is far dif­fer­ent than the bills’ sup­port­ers in­tended.

Thus, there is con­cern among pro­po­nents of crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form about bills sent to a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee dur­ing the 2017 reg­u­lar ses­sion. They were as­signed by the now-for­mer head of the House ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee, who re­jected the orig­i­nal bills com­pris­ing rec­om­men­da­tions by a gover­nor’s task force on crim­i­nal jus­tice.

The bills never made it out of con­fer­ence last year, de­spite re­peated calls from the gover­nor and others to give them a vote, and they re­main in the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee to­day.

An­drew Speno, who heads the Oklahoma chap­ter of Right on Crime, a con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes jus­tice re­form, ar­gues that the bills in com­mit­tee aren’t perfect but are worth­while as is. They are “crit­i­cal to re­duc­ing the prison pop­u­la­tion and that has to be a top pri­or­ity, as long as we can do it with­out com­pro­mis­ing pub­lic safety,” Speno says.

Oklahoma’s Dis­trict At­tor­neys Coun­cil sees it dif­fer­ently. Its pres­i­dent, Kevin Buchanan, says too much fo­cus has been on elim­i­nat­ing crimes or re­duc­ing the con­se­quences for crimes, with too lit­tle at­ten­tion be­ing paid to treat­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

It’s true that Oklahoma must direct more re­sources to pro­grams that help of­fend­ers stay out of prison once they’re re­leased — or help them avoid go­ing to prison in the first place — but it’s also clear that Oklahoma can­not af­ford, fis­cally or morally, to con­tinue lock­ing up so many of its res­i­dents at the present rate. Our in­car­cer­a­tion rate, per capita, is No. 2 na­tion­ally, and is rapidly ap­proach­ing No. 1.

There are five bills in con­fer­ence com­mit­tee. One would give judges and prose­cu­tors more op­tions in di­vert­ing peo­ple from prison to treat­ment and su­per­vi­sion pro­grams, and lower the fi­nan­cial bar­ri­ers for those re-en­ter­ing so­ci­ety from prison.

An­other would limit how much time could be added to a non­vi­o­lent of­fender’s sen­tence due to prior con­vic­tions for non­vi­o­lent crimes. The DA’s coun­cil wants this bill post­poned un­til next year.

Also in con­fer­ence is a bill to make it eas­ier for of­fend­ers to get their records ex­punged, and thus help them find work. The most sweep­ing bill would do sev­eral things, in­clud­ing de­velop an ad­min­is­tra­tive parole process for older pa­tients and make non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers el­i­gi­ble for parole after serv­ing one-fourth of their sen­tence, in­stead of one-third.

Once in a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, bills can go through mi­nor re­vi­sions or be over­hauled. The au­thor of some of the bills, Rep. Terry O’Don­nell, R-Ca­toosa, says the goal is to change ex­ist­ing law in a way “that we have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact in our in­car­cer­a­tion rate, and even our growth rate.”

These bills can help do that, but they need to come out of com­mit­tee largely re­sem­bling what they looked like when they went in.

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