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Oklahoma Lawmakers Must Continue The Push for Criminal Justice Reforms

Reforms in the Legislature include sentence enhancements for many nonviolent offenses (SB 704) and establishing the Violence Prevention Innovation Fund (HB 2879)

In Oklahoma, which has the second highest incarceration rate of Black people in the country, prison admissions for Black people increased by 50% during the pandemic.

Many of us are so grateful for a new year, especially after the pain and uncertainty we experienced in 2020. But for thousands of Oklahoma families harmed by the state’s extreme sentencing laws, this year won’t offer a turning point unless the legislature passes long overdue criminal justice reform. 

Oklahoma’s prison system has been in a crisis fueled by sentencing laws that keep people in prison for decades. These long sentences don’t make Oklahoma safer and cost taxpayers over half a billion dollars each year. At a time when budgets are shrinking, those are precious dollars Oklahoma should be investing in crime survivor services and drug and mental health treatment.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare existing vulnerabilities in Oklahoma’s communities and disparities in its institutions. This is true especially of its criminal justice system. In Oklahoma, which has the second highest incarceration rate of Black people in the country, prison admissions for Black people increased by 50% during the pandemic

Oklahomans continue to spend...70% longer for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes than the national average.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, thousands of Oklahomans advocated for criminal justice reform. Last November, FWD.us and criminal justice reform advocates in Oklahoma put an important initiative, State Question 805 (SQ 805) on the ballot. SQ 805 would have limited many of the state’s most extreme sentences, reunited families, and saved taxpayers nearly $200 million dollars. 

The Yes on 805 campaign was building on several years of progress made on criminal justice reform. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly passed State Question 780 and 781 which made drug possession and low level property crimes a misdemeanor and reinvested savings in drug and mental health treatment. In 2019, Governor Stitt signed into law reform that made SQ 780 retroactive and in November of that year granted commutation to hundreds of Oklahomans serving unjust sentences. 

While SQ 805 did not pass, the more than 500,000 Oklahomans who voted Yes on 805 demonstrated that the movement for criminal justice reform is strong. And the need for reform has never been more clear. 

Oklahoma cannot continue to rely on incarceration to address substance-use, trauma, and mental illness, and it must do more to support crime survivors."

The pandemic is having an impact on Oklahoma’s economy that will be felt for years to come. While Oklahoma’s prison population has decreased over the past year – in large part due to a slowdown in transfers from county jail to state prisons and a backlog in the courts – without impactful criminal justice reform that decline is only temporary. If lawmakers do not reckon with Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis and prison overspending now, they’ll have to confront it when the state is facing steeper budget deficits and decreased revenue.  

And the fact is that Oklahoma remains one of the highest incarcerating states in the country. Oklahomans continue to spend far longer in prison for most crimes than people in other states – 70% longer for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes than the national average

That’s why this session, we are glad that many lawmakers are committed to meaningful criminal justice reforms that will improve public safety and reunite families. Advocates have taken lessons from SQ 805 and input from the domestic violence prevention community to develop a package of reforms that would rein in disproportionate sentences for nonviolent offenses and invest savings in essential services for domestic abuse survivors and violence prevention programs. The need for victims’ services has never been more dire. We can no longer stretch the capacity of service providers who have been underfunded for decades.

SB 704 and HB 2879 are common sense and urgently needed reforms.

Legislation such as Senate Bill 704 (SB 704) would eliminate sentence enhancements for many nonviolent offenses to shorten excessive sentences and safely reduce the prison population. It would also apply retroactively, meaning people currently serving enhanced sentences for eligible crimes could apply for resentencing. 

Additionally, House Bill 2879 (HB 2879) would establish the Violence Prevention Innovation Fund, a new revolving fund to provide grant opportunities to service providers and innovative violence prevention programs. These are desperately needed programs that would prioritize safety and support healing and redemption in Oklahoma communities.

This new year is filled with opportunities. But, for too many Oklahoma families impacted by incarceration and violence, those opportunities won’t be realized until lawmakers act. Oklahoma cannot continue to rely on incarceration to address substance-use, trauma, and mental illness, and it must do more to support crime survivors. SB 704 and HB 2879 are common sense and urgently needed reforms. Oklahoma leaders should pass them this session. 

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