No stand­ing still on jus­tice re­form

The Oklahoman - - OPINION -

NOTH­ING is ever sim­ple when it comes to crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form in Oklahoma, as is seen in in­mates’ frus­tra­tion that a state ques­tion ap­proved by vot­ers in 2016 doesn’t ben­e­fit them.

State Ques­tion 780 re­clas­si­fied some drug and prop­erty crimes from felonies to mis­de­meanors. The aim was to send fewer men and women to prison, thus bring­ing some re­lief to a sys­tem that has been dan­ger­ously over­crowded for many years.

Yet as The Ok­la­homan’s Dale Den­walt re­ported re­cently, the fact SQ 780 didn’t ap­ply retroac­tively means many in­mates are serv­ing lengthy sen­tences for crimes that would have brought a dif­fer­ent pun­ish­ment had they been com­mit­ted af­ter July 1, 2017, when the new law took ef­fect.

One in­mate wrote to the news­pa­per to say he had 2,600 days re­main­ing on a 10-year sen­tence “for an ad­dic­tion. I need help. I am ready for re­cov­ery. Ac­tu­ally past due.”

Other in­mates have asked the courts to ap­ply the new law retroac­tively. The Oklahoma Court of Crim­i­nal Ap­peals re­cently af­firmed a district judge’s re­jec­tion of one such ap­pli­ca­tion, not­ing that with­out lan­guage ex­pressly dic­tat­ing a change is retroac­tive, in­mates must serve the sen­tence they were given.

The changes in­cluded in SQ 780 were statu­tory, and thus can be amended via leg­is­la­tion. This is some­thing the Leg­is­la­ture may want to con­sider as part of what needs to be an on­go­ing push for fur­ther crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form.

A re­port is­sued last week by the non­profit Prison Pol­icy Ini­tia­tive un­der­scores why fur­ther work is needed. It places Oklahoma’s in­car­cer­a­tion rate as the high­est in the coun­try, worse even than Louisiana, which had long held the top spot but now is No. 2 ac­cord­ing to PPI.

Ac­cord­ing to the think tank’s re­searchers, Oklahoma’s in­car­cer­a­tion rate is 1,079 per 100,000. The na­tional rate is 698 per 100,000 (Louisiana’s is 1,052 per 100,000). PPI tal­lied those be­ing held in state pris­ons, lo­cal jails, fed­eral pris­ons and “other sys­tems of con­fine­ment,” which in­clude those held in ju­ve­nile res­i­den­tial fa­cil­i­ties, those de­tained for im­mi­gra­tion of­fenses and peo­ple held by the U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice.

Thus, this to­tal doesn’t solely im­pact the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions. But the DOC bears the over­whelm­ing brunt of it, and it needs fur­ther re­lief.

Steps have been taken in re­cent years, in­clud­ing bills ap­proved this ses­sion — af­ter be­ing hung up for a year — that will help slow the growth of the in­mate pop­u­la­tion. Among other things, the bills ease sen­tenc­ing man­dates on re­peat drug of­fend­ers, end manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences for some non­vi­o­lent drug-re­lated and bur­glary of­fenses, and make it eas­ier for some­one with a crim­i­nal his­tory to have his record ex­punged.

The Leg­is­la­ture also ap­proved a $116.5 mil­lion bond is­sue for prison re­pairs and main­te­nance so that, as Cor­rec­tions Direc­tor Joe All­baugh put it, they’ll be able to “close doors and keep them closed with­out us­ing zip ties.”

This ef­fort can­not end here. Whether it’s tweak­ing SQ 780 or pur­su­ing a much heav­ier lift such as sen­tenc­ing re­form, Oklahoma can­not af­ford to stand idle on this is­sue. It’s cer­tain not to be easy, but it must be done.

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