In recent weeks, state legislative committees have approved bills that would automate the expunging of criminal records for thousands of Oklahomans and reclassify some criminal sentences, an early sign that criminal justice reform efforts are continuing on Capitol Hill. state, even as the political climate has become more difficult.
In recent years, Oklahoma lawmakers and voters have taken significant steps to reduce the state’s overcrowded prison population through sentencing reforms and mass commutations.
“Three or four years ago, this was sort of the last remaining bipartisan issue,” said Brett Tolman, executive director of Right on Crime, a national organization that advocates for conservative criminal justice reforms.
But Tolman said some conservatives have grown more wary of criminal justice reform efforts as right-wing media has focused on some rising crime rates and debates over police funding have taken place in most major cities.
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The fact that this is an election year for most state lawmakers also forces many conservative politicians to work hard to avoid a “soft on crime” charge.
Tolman was in Oklahoma last week pushing for House Bill 3316, which would automatically seal old criminal records for certain low-level offenses, a process that currently involves a lot of time and money for an individual.
The bill, which is expected to help more than 100,000 people, is backed by both the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, and the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a left-leaning organization.
“On the national stage, there’s been a swing of the pendulum toward tough-on-crime rhetoric, but I don’t think that’s the reality here in Oklahoma,” said Damion Shade, justice and economic mobility project manager for the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
“The truth is, rural lawmakers, bigger city lawmakers, right wing and left wing, they all still have a real stake in this,” Shade said.
Some think the state has ‘gone too far’
In 2016, voters agreed to reduce some non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, including increasing the property value of felony theft from $500 to $1,000. Three years later, the state legislature expanded the new threshold for those already incarcerated, prompting a wave of commutations.
But while some see the need to build on work from a few years ago, other lawmakers believe the move has gone too far.
“Here, I don’t hear many people saying that we incarcerate too many. What I hear is when people steal your stuff, we’re not tough enough,” said Rep. Jim Grego, R-Wilburton, who represents Latimer County in southeast Utah. Oklahoma.
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Grego filed a bill that would toughen penalties for certain levels of methamphetamine possession, a request he said came from local sheriffs and prosecutors.
“Maybe they think we’ve gone too far,” Grego said.
Not so long ago, the overwhelming belief among most Oklahoma lawmakers was that tough sentences and full jails were the best answer to criminal behavior.
Election candidates would compete to see who could be tougher on criminals.
“As governor of Oklahoma, I will not allow a prisoner to be released because of lack of space. Ever,” former governor Frank Keating said in 1994, then a candidate for office addressing to The Oklahoman in a report that highlighted how the three gubernatorial candidates wanted to be “tough on crime.”
In 2019, Governor Kevin Stitt gained national attention for releasing hundreds of nonviolent offenders from prison, in what was believed to be the nation’s largest one-day commutation.
“This was a historic year for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma,” Stitt said at the end of his first year in office.
Political observers say criminal justice reform efforts appeared to slow in the past year, though some minor bills passed, including one named after Stitt’s wife that compels the Department of Corrections to work proactively with soon-to-be-released inmates on various post-incarceration needs, such as obtaining government documents and finding employment.
A hard look at the pain
This year, proponents of reform are tracking several bills, including Senate Bill 1646, which reclassifies certain sentence lengths for lower-level, non-violent crimes.
The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month.
Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, was the only no on the committee. He argued that even some “low-level crimes” result in a victim who must be accounted for.
“There will always be someone on the other end – it may not be murder or armed robbery,” Weaver said.
In advocating for the bill, Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said reducing prison sentences and moving away from an incarceration mentality is not an easy process.
“It’s going to be painful because we’re going to see things we don’t like. It’s going to involve how we’ve treated people in the administration of justice in Oklahoma. It will take more people around the table to look at it, especially those who have been on the wrong side of this whole system, especially women,” Boren said.
“The status quo is broken.”
Oklahoma’s prison population has declined 20% over the past three years, although the state’s incarceration rate remains one of the highest in the nation.
Tolman, executive director of Right on Crime, said convincing some conservative lawmakers that more needs to be done can be a challenge, noting that even the language of “criminal justice reform” is looked down upon.
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In an election year, some candidates running for office have built campaigns on the rhetoric that crime is on the rise, including some who blame recent criminal justice reform efforts.
Certain types of violent crime have recently spiked across the country, but overall crime rates have been declining for years.
“Some of it is just narrative, but it scares people off,” Tolman said. “Our job is to show them the facts.”
This story is provided in part by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation. To support work like this, please consider purchasing a digital subscription today at https://cm.oklahoman.com/specialoffer/.