Task force can help balance the scale of Oklahoma’s prison crisis

  • Shade

Criminal justice reform is paying dividends in Oklahoma. The single largest commutation in American history happened in November with more than 400 Oklahomans reunited with their families and communities. Additionally, the commutation is estimated to have saved taxpayers $11.9 million. These are significantly positive developments, but they represent first steps in the long journey towards getting Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate closer to the national average.

Building on the state’s recent momentum towards criminal justice reform, Gov. Kevin Stitt this spring created the criminal justice RESTORE Task Force to make recommendations that could be considered during the upcoming Legislative session. The task force has the potential to fundamentally alter Oklahoma’s justice system for the better. Through its recommendations and appropriate action by lawmakers, the RESTORE task force could bring more justice to the state’s prison system by reducing fines and fees, lowering the impact of cash bail on the poorest Oklahomans, renewing investments in alternatives to incarceration and treatment, and creating a dedicated re-entry system.

A key consideration will be to encourage investments in treatment and alternatives to prison. This should begin by increasing access to prison diversions like mental health courts, drug courts and other treatments. Increased access to drug treatment is already happening in states like Texas that have invested in more treatment options this decade. Determining drug court access based on evidence-based, best practices would serve far more Oklahomans.

The RESTORE task force should also advocate for more mental health funding alongside adequate funding of the State Question 781 fund. By statute, lawmakers were required to take the estimated savings in reduced incarceration costs from recent justice reforms and re-invest those dollars in community mental health care. So far, the Legislature has not funded this reinvestment process.

Our prisons are filled with people suffering from the impacts of trauma and struggling with addiction. The majority of these individuals aren’t receiving the treatment they need in prison, and the waiting lists for public services in the outside world can be months long. Lawmakers should provide the funding for community mental health services that would help many defendants struggling with addiction to avoid jail in the first place. The task force can help upend the state’s failed investment strategy -- prisons over treatment -- if they hope to get to the root of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis.

The RESTORE Task Force should recommend that legislators build on progress from last session and reduce the impact of court fines and fees on the poorest Oklahomans. More than 80 percent of court funding in Oklahoma now comes from fees assessed on criminal defendants who are often unable to pay. Between 2012 and 2018, this court-funding model has led to more than $600 million in delinquent court debt. In Oklahoma, failing to pay court debt can cost people their driver’s licenses or result in arrest; the resulting jail stay can cost people their jobs, their homes, and even custody of their children. Arrest warrants due to failure to pay are particularly prevalent in communities of color like North Tulsa, where judges issued more than 20,000 such warrants in 2017. The RESTORE Task Force should end these modern day debtor’s prisons and ensure equal access to justice regardless of money.

The task force should also recommend that every defendant in each county across the state gets a timely bail hearing with an individualized determination of their ability to pay. There are counties in Oklahoma where a defendant in a non-violent felony case sits in jail for an average of six months before trial simply because they can’t afford to buy their freedom from a bondsman. The task force should also mandate automatic release for low-level misdemeanors unless a judge deems the defendant a flight risk or risk to public safety. Commissioners in Harris County, Texas, recently adopted a similar reform and the early results are promising. The bottom line is that Oklahomans don’t deserve less justice than people in other states simply because of their income.

The task force should recommend better investments in supervision and services for those exiting prison. The system is critically understaffed and under resourced. For example, there are only three permanent reentry case managers for 22 Oklahoma Department of Corrections facilities to help those exiting prison successfully enter parole. This fundamental lack of investment means that too many formerly incarcerated Oklahomans lack the support they need to succeed.

Oklahoma voters in 2016 sent clear messages by their overwhelming support of reclassifying low-level drug offenses to misdemeanors (SQ 780) and reinvesting resulting savings (SQ 781). The task force must build on these positive efforts and make these criminal justice changes more robust. Hopefully, the Governor’s RESTORE Task Force will help advise lawmakers about justice reforms that can build on the positive progress started by voters.