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Observers: Election will direct the trajectory of criminal justice reform

The Journal Record

October 3, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – November’s election will play a large role in Oklahoma’s criminal justice reform movement and its trajectory moving forward.

Some of the most prominent lawmakers in the committees handling criminal justice matters have been ousted, and the attorney general is also up for re-election. Observers said those will be some of the most important races. The governor’s race will be too, but perhaps not for the obvious reasons.

House Floor Leader Jon Echols said almost all members of House leadership are facing an election, including himself, Speaker Charles McCall, Appropriations and Budget Chairman Kevin Wallace and Majority Whip Terry O’Donnell.

The gubernatorial election will decide who goes into the Governor’s Mansion, but it will also decide who gets to appoint some of the most powerful people in the state in terms of politics and finance, he said, and each of those officials will wield significant power during policy discussions. The director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services will oversee the agency responsible for the state’s finances and often gets to offer advice on budget issues. The secretary of state’s position isn’t inherently relevant, he said, but the person who gets appointed always tends to be a heavy hitter, on the federal level and in Oklahoma, he said. For example, Gov. Frank Keating appointed now-U.S. Rep. Tom Cole as his secretary of state. Gov. Brad Henry appointed former Tulsa Mayor Susan Savage. Gov. Mary Fallin appointed both former Oklahoma Senate Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee and now-Attorney General Mike Hunter as her secretaries of state.

But one of the most influential officials will be far less visible.

“Whoever the new governor’s general counsel is will be critical on this issue,” Echols said. “(That is), traditionally, who the governor is going to lean on. These are pretty complex legal issues.”

He said that groups outside of 23rd and Lincoln will also have a strong voice. The District Attorneys Council, which represents prosecutors statewide, already has a strong voice in policymaking, he said. But non-governmental groups will also be heard well. The state’s top think tanks spanning the political spectrum, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and Oklahoma Policy Institute, have both made criminal justice reform a top priority. Organizations such as Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and Right on Crime will have a voice, as well.

Andrew Speno is the spokesman for Right on Crime, an organization that supports Republican approaches to reducing incarceration rates.

He said that in the Legislature, the Senate’s actions will likely be more predictable. Pro Tempore-designate Greg Treat authored several of the bills that came out of the governor’s criminal justice reform task force; his stance on criminal justice reform is well-documented.

The House might be different, he said. There will be scores of new faces in that chamber, including the one that fills Rep. Bobby Cleveland’s seat. The Slaughterville Republican had been the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, but he didn’t make it out of his primary this summer.

“He was a great advocate for criminal justice reform, visited prisons all the time, and he’s gone now,” Speno said.

Speno said the attorney general will also get a strong voice in how Oklahoma tackles criminal justice reform moving forward.

Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, said the judiciary chairmen will obviously play a pivotal role in sentencing, prison and bail reforms. In the House, Rep. Chris Kannady holds the seat, but the Senate’s chairman, Anthony Sykes, termed out this year.

He said for unexpected players, observers should look at Georgia’s campaign for reform that took place a few years ago.

“When Georgia succeeded, a lot of judges jumped into the conversation,” he said.

That included the Georgia Supreme Court’s chief justice, who was elected to the bench as a Republican. That state holds partisan judicial elections.

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