Originally Published: Tulsa World
Written by: David Safavian
When this legislative session’s top criminal justice reform proposals were announced in January, the bipartisan coalition supporting them had a simple, modest goal. They wanted a slight incarceration rate reduction to change Oklahoma’s No. 1 incarcerator ranking to No. 2 — far from earth-shattering.
Hard as it is to believe, it appears some think that was too ambitious. If so, those politicians are out of step with Oklahoma voters who have repeatedly shown their support for reforms like these that not only save taxpayer money, but make us safer.
Recent polls show consistent — and increasing — support for criminal justice reform, especially among Republicans. An October 2018 poll showed 85% of Republican voters believe it is important to reduce Oklahoma’s prison and jail populations. A more recent Right on Crime poll of four conservative districts in Oklahoma found at least 2 out of 3 voters in each district said they would vote against their legislator if he or she opposed or obstructed criminal justice reform.
The poll also showed increased support for State Questions 780 and 781, the criminal justice reform measures voters already approved overwhelmingly 2½ years ago. Prosecutors claimed passage of those measures would result in a crime wave. But that crime wave never materialized.
Three weeks before legislators are planning to wrap up the legislative session, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced his criminal justice priorities for this year. While Stitt’s support for criminal justice reform is encouraging, his proposals notably exclude four critical and widely-supported reforms that would lower Oklahoma’s highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate.
• Bail reforms (Senate Bill 252) to limit pretrial detention for many people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies,
• Supervision reforms (House Bill 2273 and HB 2218) to bring Oklahoma’s supervision policies in line with the best research in the field,
• Sentencing reforms to provide law enforcement more clarity by distinguishing simple possession from possession with intent to distribute (HB 1100) and limit excessive sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenses.
The voters don’t want to see Oklahoma named the No. 1 incarcerator yet again. All of these reforms have passed by large bipartisan majorities in the Oklahoma House and Senate. In fact, some — like supervision and sentence enhancement reform — passed the House unanimously, reflecting strong public support for proposals that safely reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate. Oklahoma taxpayers and families shouldn’t have to wait another year for politicians to do their jobs and fix the system.
Just last month, the White House held a celebration of the historic federal criminal justice reforms won by President Trump through the First Step Act. Oklahoma can follow the president’s lead and reduce its own jail and prison populations if political leaders listen to the voters.
But if they don’t, the 2019 session will end where it started, with Oklahoma being America’s top incarcerator — a title no one should be proud to have.