By Steve Metzer
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – Legislation that could lead to the release of hundreds of people incarcerated in Oklahoma for minor drug offenses and property crimes continued to advance at the Capitol on Thursday.
House Bill 1269, if passed into law, would affect people in prison on felony convictions whose crimes have recently been reclassified as misdemeanors. The bill’s authors estimate that 500-800 such men and women could be subject to expedited “single-stage” parole if the measure is adopted. As many as 60,000 Oklahomans who currently have felonies on their records stemming from drug possession offenses or minor property crimes could potentially have those felonies expunged.
Essentially, HB 1269 would expand the outcome of a state question passed by voters in 2016. SQ 780 asked whether certain “low-level” crimes that in the past were prosecuted as felonies should be reclassified as misdemeanors. More than 58% of voters answered “yes,” and criminal justice reform efforts have since picked up steam as Oklahomans grapple with the high costs of being the state with the highest incarceration rate in the nation.
The bill’s authors, including state Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City; Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City; and Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, held a brief press conference after the measure passed on the House floor Thursday, touting its importance as a piece of more comprehensive criminal justice reform underway in the state.
“This gives those individuals an opportunity to really reset,” Bice said. “We’ve been tough on crime but we haven’t been smart on crime, and I think this legislation is smart on crime. I look forward to getting it through the Senate and onto the governor’s desk as soon as possible.”
If the bill becomes law, within 30 days the Oklahoma Department of Corrections would be required to forward a list of affected inmates to the state Pardon and Parole Board. The inmates then would be subject to a simple commutation process and probable parole. It was originally proposed that cases should be reviewed at the district court level, but that would have been much more costly and time-consuming and was opposed by the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association.
“This language (in HB 1269) is much better. We believe the expedited parole process is a good way to deal with this issue,” said Brian Hermanson, the DA for Kay and Noble counties.
Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, issued a statement Thursday urging the bill’s final passage.
“We look forward to it reaching the governor’s desk alongside four more active reforms that, coupled with retroactivity, can finally get Oklahoma out of No. 1 in incarceration,” Steele said.
At Thursday’s press conference, the lawmakers said a part of HB 1269 that may be underappreciated is the component dealing with expungement of felonies from criminal records. Dunnington said living with a felony record can be “like living a whole different prison sentence outside the system” because people can’t find jobs, housing or otherwise move on with their lives. Expunging felony drug possession offenses from records is a matter of “simple fairness, allowing them to get on with their lives,” he said.
Echols said the bill also should allow for the state to redirect some resources away from prisons and dedicate them instead to mental health and substance abuse treatment and other needs.
“The citizens of Oklahoma told us the number one incarceration rate in the world is not acceptable,” Echols added. “They want low-level offenders not to be incarcerated. This bill will lower incarceration rates, but it also allows for those records to be expunged, so that people can get back into the workforce and not have to carry that felony.”
The lawmakers pointed out that the bill has progressed to the point of near-passage with bipartisan support.
“Good things can happen here at the Capitol when we decide to work together as a team,” Echols said. “We really love the story of this bill. … This is a great first step, and we’re committed to taking the additional steps necessary.”
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, described HB 1269 as an important start in a process that will have to continue if criminal justice reform is truly to make a positive difference in Oklahoma. Another critical piece, she said, will be to change the way courts in the state are dependent on funding provided by fees, fines and assessments paid into the system by criminal suspects, offenders and their families.
“(HB 1269) is an important part of criminal just reform, but it’s complicated and it needs to be done right,” Floyd said. “I think it’s a piece of the solution, but true criminal justice reform will involve many pieces that will have to work together. It can’t be accomplished with just one bill.”