February 7, 2019
OKLAHOMA CITY – Calling it a critical need, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt urged state lawmakers to plug $10 million into drug intervention and treatment programs and make changes to the state’s criminal justice system in an effort to reduce the state’s skyrocketing prison population.
Stitt called for the funding increase Monday, during his first State of the State speech.
“Next, let us take a moment to reimagine our state’s criminal justice system,” the governor said. “We are number one in the nation for incarceration. To move the needle, it will require us to change the way we see the person who is in a cycle of incarceration for non-violent crimes.”
During his speech, the governor also asked lawmakers for $1.5 million for Women in Recovery, a public-private partnership that helps women identify their addictions and develop like skills.
The governor’s call headlines a three-year effort, initially spearheaded by former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma and members of the business community.
Steele pointed to a 2018 study by the Prison Policy Initiative that reported the state’s incarceration rate was the highest in the United States. Oklahoma, the report noted, incarcerates 1,097 per 100,000 people.
“We’re simply warehousing individuals,” he said.
In Oklahoma, more than 1,100 inmates are serving time for simple possession crimes, Steele said. “If we pass these bills that apply those reforms retroactively, those people would be released,” he said.
Steele said another 60,000 Oklahomans could have a previous felony conviction changed to a misdemeanor under the proposals. That change would give those residents better employment and housing opportunities, he said.
A study by the Oklahoma Policy Institute reported that every month about 600 Oklahoma prisoners become eligible for parole but only about 200 – 1 in 3 – apply for parole.
“This is in part because parole’s cost can add up quickly,” the study said. “Unless a parolee’s fees are waived for hardship, anyone on parole in this state must pay $40 per month for Department of Corrections supervision in addition to court fines and fees, as well as some additional amount of financial restitution, depending on the offense.”
In his speech, Stitt also asked the Legislature to provide $1.5 million for joint effort between the state and the organization Women in Recovery. Stitt said he was encouraged by legislation in the Oklahoma House of Representatives that would allow some individuals previously convicted of a felony to obtain an occupational license.
“We must give Oklahomans re-entering society more opportunities to be gainfully employed and we must give employers more discretion on who they can hire,” he said.
The state Senate’s Republican leader threw his support behind the governor’s call for change.
“Advancing criminal justice reform by supporting diversion programs will impact many areas of our state in a positive way,” Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said in a media statement. “With this agenda, we’re working toward helping Oklahoma achieve a better and brighter future.”
Ryan Kiesel, executive director the ACLU of Oklahoma, applauded Stitt’s emphasis on criminal justice reform. But Stitt and state lawmakers, Kiesel said, have a lot of work to do.
“It’s a really positive development to have the governor talk about criminal justice reform in the State of the State,” he said. “It demonstrates that he not only has an open mind, but has made it a clear priority of his administration.”
Kiesel said changing the criminal justice system should also include efforts to reform the cash base system, applying sentence reform retroactively and addressing the way jury sentencing is handled.
“We still incarcerate more than anyone in the world,” Kiesel said. “We still have prisons that are far too full and district attorneys still wield a large outside political lobbying force at the state Capitol.”
The conversation over criminal justice reform, he said, can’t continue to be a one-sided conversation between just prosecutors and lawmakers. “We have to open up this conversation to include everyone – the people of accused, those convicted and criminal defense attorneys.”
Currently, several bills working their way through the Legislature would make dramatic changes in the way Oklahoma prosecutes and sentences non-violent offenders. Two measures, House Bill 2589 and House Bill 2310 would give juries more flexibility when sentencing offenders.
“Right now, prosecutors are the ones with enormous amounts of power,” Kiesel said. “These bills would change that.”