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Criminal justice reform 'a very bipartisan issue'

An inmate leaves Kate Barnard Correctional Center in early December after Gov. Mary Fallin commuted her 20-year prison sentence. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman.]

An inmate leaves Kate Barnard Correctional Center in early December after Gov. Mary Fallin commuted her 20-year prison sentence. [Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman.]

Both Republicans and Democrats have identified criminal justice reform as an area for bipartisan cooperation next legislative session, an indication that momentum from voter-approved reforms continues as Oklahoma deals with a nation-leading incarceration rate.

A bipartisan bill to make sentencing reform measures approved by voters in 2016 retroactive is expected to get a lot of attention during the 2019 session.

Gov. Mary Fallin received high praise earlier this month after signing commutation requests for 21 inmates, which reform advocates believe shows a growing interest among the public to see nonviolent offenders released.

"I think voters are much more engaged on this issue than perhaps they have been in years past, and I think that will have a direct impact on the results we see in the next legislative session," Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a bipartisan coalition of community leaders, said.

But with continued sentencing reform and additional commutations, Oklahoma must provide additional support for released inmates, state Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, said.

"We want fewer people in prison, but we still have a problem of people coming out of prison and not having the opportunity to rebuild their lives," Young said.

Young has authored a bill that would create a pilot program to offer inmates post-release education and rehabilitation services.

He considers the bill a "conversation-starter" around additional supports for inmates and those who would normally face incarceration.

Young also plans to file legislation that would lower the amount of fees and fines inmates pay when they are released.

"We have to think about these things, especially if we are going to work to release more people from prison," Young said.

Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, has filed a bill ahead of next session that would create a task force to study sentencing and make recommendations designed to reduce recidivism.

"Tired of just locking people up"

In 2016, voters approved a state question that made certain drug and property crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, and House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, plan to file a bill that would make the state question retroactive.

Oklahomans have "spoken very clearly" that they'd like lawmakers to find remedies "that make sense and that aren't just punitive to be punitive," Dunnington said.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform supports making the state question retroactive.

The organization also plans to advocate for more substance abuse treatment funding and reduced ​sentence lengths for nonviolent offenders, according to a policy agenda that includes several suggestions for 2019.

Steele said he expects to "see a good amount of criminal justice reform proposals at the state Capitol," especially with so many new lawmakers.

After three decades working in law enforcement, including eight years as director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, Darrell Weaver was elected last month to the state Senate, where he plans to draw on his experience in shaping conversations around criminal justice reform.

“We've gone through a time where we relied too much on just trying to make arrests, and I'll admit I was part of that,” said Weaver, R-Moore, who has been named to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I think Oklahomans, including myself, are just tired of locking people up,” Weaver said. “But we also have to find ways to restore these people who are (in prison). We really have to work on giving people help once they get out, whether that's reducing fines or giving them a skill set.”

Lawmakers will also have to decide how much money to spend on the state's overcrowded prison system.

The Oklahoma Board of Corrections is asking the Legislature to triple its funding next fiscal year, including money for the construction of new prisons.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said there is a moral and financial need to lower the state's incarceration rate and she's optimistic positive steps will be taken in the coming months.

"Criminal justice reform is not something we see that differentiates us from the other side of the aisle," Virgin said. "It will certainly be a priority for us, but we feel like it's a very bipartisan issue."

Ben Felder

Ben Felder is an investigative reporter for The Oklahoman. A native of Kansas City, Ben has lived in Oklahoma City since 2010 and covered politics, education and local government for the Oklahoma Gazette before joining The Oklahoman in 2016.... Read more ›