Action needed on justice reform bills
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.