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Task force promoting a new look at Oklahoma justice reform

What should the public expect when a task force charged by Gov. Kevin Stitt with studying criminal justice reform issues its recommendations Friday? Chip Keating, secretary of public safety, offers a clue.

“There’s not going to be a big ‘gotcha’ with this report,” Keating said at a task force meeting Monday. “What you’re going to see more of … are cultural changes.”

That term was used more than once during the meeting, where task force ex-officio Chairwoman Tricia Everest said criminal justice reform is well underway in Oklahoma. The most prominent example cited was Stitt’s commutation in November of the sentences of more than 450 nonviolent property and drug offenders.

It was touted as the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history, and it happened because Oklahoma voters in 2016 approved a state question reducing some nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and in 2019 legislators agreed to make the state question retroactive and directed the parole board to create an accelerated commutation docket to review eligible cases.

That represented a culture shift — it’s difficult to imagine something similar happening even a decade ago. In May, Stitt created the 15-member task force, called RESTORE (for Reentry, Supervision, Treatment and Opportunity Reform), to, among other things, study ways to lower Oklahoma’s incarceration rate, reduce recidivism, enhance diversion programs and deter criminal activity.

The panel included people involved in all facets of the justice system, from a prosecutor to a mental health expert to a victims’ advocate to the head of the Office of Juvenile Affairs. In six months’ time, task force subcommittees held 37 meetings and got input from more than 95 stakeholders.

“We came to the table not as experts,” Everest said. “We came to the table to listen.”

She said task force members heard from judges in urban and rural areas, victims, former inmates, prosecutors, trauma-informed experts, mental health experts and others.

Criminal justice reform, she said, isn’t something that can solely be addressed legislatively. It touches all branches of government, as well as schools, homes and businesses, she said.

One thing the task force will recommend is for the Department of Corrections to hire a chief cultural officer, a position Keating noted is routine in the private sector.

Keating also mentioned a visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, which he said has been transformed in the past 25 years from what was once “America’s bloodiest prison.” The changes have been “remarkable” and have been driven not by policy but by people, he said.

Thus, the task force won’t be making specific recommendations for the Legislature. “Probably 65% of what we can do doesn’t require any statute changes, any legislative approval,” Keating said. “It requires just doing things differently.” We’ll see how that manifests itself in the months and years ahead.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›