By Bailey Walker - Previous Staff Member
Over 450 people were released for nonviolent drug offenses after the commutation of 527 sentences Nov. 4. According to Oklahoma Policy Institute data on annual cost of incarceration, this release could save the state upwards of $7,423,650.
Legislators and residents of Oklahoma have been trying to control the state’s sky-high incarcerated population. House Bill 1269 is the latest step in that journey.
HB 1269 makes the effects of State Question 780 retroactive, reducing sentences for felony drug possession and allowing the opportunity for those released to expunge their records. The bill received overwhelming support, passing in the House 76 to 22, and the Senate 37 to 5 and took effect Nov. 1.
Criminal justice reform has been a major focus for Oklahomans even before the passage of SQ 780, which reclassified simple drug possession and minor property theft as misdemeanors. Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate not only in the country, but in the world, incarcerating around 1,000 people per capita. Oklahoma’s rate was nearly twice that of the national average and surpassed that of Russia, Brazil, Turkey and India combined, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Though the incarcerated population has been declining for three years due to action from activists and legislators, the title of top incarcerator in the world still haunted Oklahoma. That was up until the largest commutation of sentences in the nation’s history.
Largely, groups directly operating under the criminal justice system opposed SQ 780, including the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police and several district attorneys. OACP did not respond to a request for comment.
“I am very supportive of criminal justice reform, but I am not supportive of decriminalizing drugs and doing nothing to address drug addictions," said Oklahoma Rep. Justin Humphrey who voted no on HB 1269. “We are creating a cycle of multiple misdemeanor cases that eventually will result in a felony. We are turning people loose with no real supervision or tools to change behavior. Want to see the results of this kind of criminal justice reform? Look at the West Coast.”
Looking to the West Coast, California passed two dozen criminal justice reform bills recently. California will end
mandatory sentencing, stop using facial recognition software in body cameras, speed up rape kit processing, provide automatic record expungement for low level offenses, allow former felons to serve on juries, with a pre-trial diversion program for primary caregivers of children so they do not end up in jail and more.
State Rep. Jim Olsen, another no vote on HB 1269, had a vague, ideological take.
“When someone commits a crime, they are liable for all of the consequences of that crime,” Olsen said. “If somebody doesn’t like the consequences of a crime, then they should not commit the crime.
For the protection of the community, and of potential employers, people are entitled to know a person’s past record. Only in unusual or exceptional circumstances, should a record be expunged.”
The expungement process is not automatic and not free as in the California reforms. It costs around $300 to fill out the proper paperwork for the process. More fees are charged for further steps in the process, including paying court debts before starting the process, gathering case history, obtaining legal counsel and paying for final expungement documents, all of which have varying costs depending on one’s situation. This means that a certain number of people will be priced out of this opportunity, helping to sustain being trapped in having access only to lower income jobs.
To ease the process for new releases, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections held transition fairs at two facilities, the Eddie Warrior and Jess Dunn correctional facilities, with plans to hold more at other facilities. These transition fairs were set up to help new releases reintegrate into the public by, according to Fox 25, connecting people to organizations that help with housing, transportation, employment, mentoring, health care, mental health care and other resources offenders need after release.
The state is estimated to save more than $7 million over the next year after this first round of commutations, with more savings from people spending less time incarcerated. Oklahoma is demonstrating a pattern of willingness to grapple with mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. These moves will free up funding for state functions and improve the lives of those affected by the criminal justice system.