No standing still on justice reform
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.