Treat says Oklahoma on the right track

Paul Monies Oklahoma Watch
An inmate is seen entering one of the housing units at Joseph Harp Correctional Facility in Lexington. Whitney Bryen/ Oklahoma Watch

In past sessions, many criminal justice reform proposals have lost momentum by April, when the last major bill deadline hits. But this year, a broad coalition of groups have gotten behind a package of reform bills.

“We’ve had some real movement on criminal justice reform here at the Capitol and we continue on that path, and we’ll continue in the conference committee process to push that issue,” Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said.

Here are five questions surrounding the surviving bills.

Have lawmakers made State Question 780 retroactive?

They’re working on it. House Bill 1269 has broad support but is still a work in progress because there are several complicating factors, including a time limit on inmate re-sentencing, which could increase dockets in the short term. Others include the availability of the indigent defense system to handle those re-sentencing cases. It passed the Senate by a vote of 37-5 on Thursday and goes to a conference committee to work out changes between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Treat said he’s still concerned about the estimates on the number of possible inmates who might be covered under the retroactivity legislation. He said numbers from various agencies and commissions in the past year have ranged from 500 to 1,500 people. The Department of Corrections latest estimate is 500 people, he said.

“We’re dealing with real human lives,” Treat said. “We’ve got to make sure we have our numbers right. It points to an underlying problem that’s prevalent throughout state government but really highlighted in DOC is our IT is terrible. We’ve got to get the record- keeping system at DOC more robust.”

What might change with cash bail?

Senate Bill 252 makes some significant changes to the cash bail system for misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses and forbids pre-trial detention for those offenses. Criminal justice reform advocates called its passage a “home run,” although it met stiff resistance from the bail bond industry.

“Senate Bill 252 is a critical reform needed to stop jail growth in Oklahoma and move our state out of the No. 1 spot for incarceration,” said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “For those who support reducing burdensome costs imposed on people involved in the justice system, this bill is a home run.”

The bill passed the House 70-23 Thursday and returns to the Senate for final consideration.

Has the definition of possession with intent to distribute been standardized statewide?

House Bill 1100 gives more guidance to police and prosecutors on what constitutes “simple possession” and “possession with intent to distribute.” It also lowers maximum prison sentences and fines for possession with intent to distribute. This bill came after concerns were raised in the wake of the passage of State Question 780 in 2016 that prosecutors were “upcharging” drug possession crimes because they had less flexibility on charging low-level drug crimes. A snapshot of court data released by the Oklahoma Policy Institute in November found possession with intent to distribute charges rose 13 percent from Fiscal Year 2017 to Fiscal Year 2018.

HB 1100 passed the Senate 39-2 on Thursday and returns to the House for final consideration.

Does the legislation affect the Pardon and Parole Board?

Yes, House Bill 2273 would require the board to provide a reason for denying an inmate’s parole. When the board denies parole, the bill would require it to provide the inmate with a “course of remediation” to make parole more likely in the future. The board released one-third of nonviolent offenders in fiscal year 2018; 6.3 percent of violent offenders were released.

The bill passed the Senate 44-0 Thursday and returns to the House for final consideration.

Can those with criminal records be denied occupational licenses?

Yes, but the ability to do so is narrowing. House Bill 1373 would require state agencies that deal with job licenses to list specific criminal convictions that disqualify applicants. Gov. Mary Fallin in 2016 issued an executive order prohibiting state agencies from asking about felony convictions on job applications. However, there are no similar prohibitions on the private sector. The bill also would limit license disqualifications to five years for crimes that aren’t violent or sexual in nature, provided the person isn’t convicted of other crimes during that time.

The bill passed the Senate 42-0 Thursday and returns to the House for final consideration.

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