After a wide swath of rural and urban voters rejected State Question 805 last November, supporters of the sentencing reform ballot initiative vowed to regroup and turn their attention to the next legislative session.
“We have built a powerful bipartisan movement that will continue to fight for common-sense reforms in the months ahead,” Sarah Edwards, president of the Yes on 805 group, said in a Nov. 3 press release. “We demand the Oklahoma Legislature act on criminal justice reform this legislative session.”
State lawmakers have introduced several dozen bills that could change how law enforcement agencies, courts and corrections systems operate. The legislative session begins Monday and runs through late May.
Senate Bill 704, a similar proposal to State Question 805 with some exceptions, would prohibit courts from imposing sentence enhancements on defendants who have never been convicted of a violent felony. Other bills filed would extend voting rights to more formerly incarcerated people, create a police misconduct database and allow the corrections department to release more prisoners early.
Here are five criminal justice and corrections bills worth watching:
Another Push for Sentencing Reform
Bill number: Senate Bill 704
Sponsor: Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa
This bill would prohibit courts from imposing sentence enhancements on certain offenders who have never been convicted of a violent felony. The bill defines a violent felony as any offense listed in Section 571 of Title 57 of the Oklahoma Statutes.
Under current state law, courts may impose tougher sentences on defendants who have a prior felony conviction. Here’s how these sentence enhancement ranges are calculated:
- If a first-time offender could receive no more than five years, a repeat offender may receive up to twice the maximum sentence.
- If a first-time offender could receive a maximum sentence greater than five years, a repeat offender may receive anywhere from twice the minimum sentence up to life in prison. If the first offense has no minimum sentence, the mandatory minimum for a second offense is set at two years. The punishment range increases further for a third or subsequent offense.
- For example, a first felony offense of Second Degree Burglary is punishable by 0-7 years in prison. A second offense would be punishable by 2 years to life in prison.
- If Senate Bill 704 is enacted, a person convicted of Second Degree Burglary conviction could receive a maximum of seven years in prison regardless of their previous convictions.
Though similar to State Question 805, SB 704 would not would not amend the state constitution and would ensure the following crimes remain eligible for sentence enhancement:
- Felony domestic violence offenses listed in Section 644 of Title 21 of the Oklahoma Statutes.
- Animal cruelty.
- Driving under the influence causing great bodily harm.
- Any offense requiring sex offender registration.
Lawmakers say the bill is necessary to protect drivers. Activists worry it will discourage motorists from thinking twice before running over protesters.
Justice reform advocates argue that harsh sentences for nonviolent offenders are driving Oklahoma’s high imprisonment rate. A June 2020 study by Fwd.US, a Washington, D.C. based lobbying group that advocates for prison reform, found that Oklahoma inmates serve an average of 70% longer for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes than the national average.
Though Oklahoma has historically had one of the highest imprisonment rates in the nation, the state prison population has declined during the pandemic. The state Department of Corrections housed 21,709 inmates on Jan. 25, down nearly 14% since last January.
Opponents of sentencing reform say the recent prison population decline proves that past reforms are taking effect, and eliminating sentence enhancements for some repeat offenders would unnecessarily compromise public safety.
Tracking Police Misconduct
Bill number: House Bill 2431
Introduced by: Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa
This bill would direct the state attorney general’s office to create and maintain a database of law enforcement officers who have been fired or resigned prior to facing disciplinary action.
The database, accessible to all law enforcement agencies and the general public, would be operational by Jan. 1, 2022. The attorney general’s office would be responsible for gathering data and updating the database monthly.
Law enforcement officers who have been fired or faced severe disciplinary action are often able to find work with different agencies. An April 2020 Yale University study found that 3% of local police officers in Florida had previously been fired.
Last year Oregon lawmakers approved similar legislation creating a public law enforcement misconduct database. In December, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., introduced the Cost of Police Misconduct Act, which would create a public database that tracks police misconduct cases and allegations at the state and federal level.
During a press conference held last June, Nichols announced that he and other House Democrats would fight for legislative efforts to better track law enforcement misconduct and establish statewide standards for local policing.
Other police accountability measures proposed by House Democrats include banning law enforcement use of chokeholds and carotid holds and specifying minimum qualifications for municipal police officers.
More Voting Rights for Felons
Bill number: House Bill 2623
Introduced by: State Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City
This bill would allow formerly incarcerated Oklahomans to vote as soon as they’re released from prison. It would also allow Oklahomans serving a felony probation sentence to vote.
Felon voting laws vary by state. In Oklahoma, those convicted of a felony have their voting rights restored once they have completed their full calendar-day sentence. Oklahoma Watch reported last year that many formerly incarcerated Oklahomans spend years free from state supervision before they’re allowed to vote again.
HB 2623 would do the following:
- Restore voting rights to anyone who is not housed in a state prison.
- Direct judges to notify criminal defendants of the possible loss and restoration of their voting rights if they are imprisoned.
- Direct the Department of Corrections to assist inmates with voter registration prior to their release.
- Add language to voter registration forms making it clear that people released from incarceration are eligible to vote.
An estimated 5.17 million people nationwide are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, according to data compiled last fall by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C. based research and advocacy center. That number has declined about 15% since 2016 as more states have passed legislation that allows formerly incarcerated people to vote.
Expanding Medical Parole
Bill number: House Bill 1903
Introduced by: State Rep. Cynthia Roe, R-Lindsay
This bill would make more prisoners eligible for medical parole, particularly if the governor has declared a catastrophic health emergency.
Under current state law, the Pardon and Parole Board may only recommend medical parole if an inmate is “dying or near death”, or declared no longer a threat to society due to their health condition. HB 1903 would expand eligibility to “medically frail” inmates who have trouble caring for themselves.
If the governor has declared a catastrophic health emergency, this bill would allow any inmate who suffers from one or more chronic health conditions to ask for medical parole. The bill identifies twelve qualifying medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and asthma.
On April 2, Gov. Kevin Stitt declared a statewide catastrophic health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The order, which allowed the governor to temporarily modify laws and allocate state personnel and funds to respond to the pandemic, expired May 30.
In late March, criminal justice reform advocates called on the corrections department and the Pardon and Parole Board to grant medical parole to vulnerable inmates.
Illinois cut rates to less than a penny per minute by forgoing what legislators considered kickbacks to the state. Oklahoma receives $3.5 million annually in commissions from its prison phone contract.
On May 14, the Pardon and Parole Board recommended 12 prisoners for medical parole. The board has not released any inmates on medical parole since then.
Overcrowded U.S. prisons have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As of Dec. 18, one in five prisoners nationwide had contracted COVID-19, according to data compiled by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, a rate four times greater than the general population.
In Oklahoma, more than 6,900 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 and 27 have died. The state Medical Examiner’s office is investigating 18 additional deaths possibly related to COVID-19.
A similar proposal, Senate Bill 396, has been introduced by Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa.
If enacted, HB 1903 would not take effect until Nov. 1.
Changing Requirements for GPS Monitoring Program
Bill number: Senate Bill 456
Introduced by: Sen. Bill Coleman, R-Ponca City
This bill would increase the number of state inmates eligible for early release under the Department of Corrections’ GPS monitoring program.
Inmates must currently meet the following criteria in order to qualify for the program:
- Serving a sentence of five years or less for a nonviolent crime. Those serving longer terms of imprisonment must have no more than 24 months left to serve
- Classified as a minimum security offender upon entering state custody
- Has not been convicted of a violent crime, listed in Section 571, Title 57 of the Oklahoma State Statutes, within the past 10 years.
- Have an approved home offer.
Senate Bill 456 would make many nonviolent offenders, regardless of their initial security classification or sentence, eligible for GPS monitoring if they have three years or less remaining on their sentence. Exceptions include:
- Those who have been convicted of a violent crime in the past 10 years
- Inmates with an active protection order or misconduct allegation
- Those convicted of a crime against a child or vulnerable adult
- Inmates who reject substance abuse treatment, or inmates who require specialized treatment that’s not offered in the community.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and several state corrections systems have reduced their prison populations by expanding GPS monitoring programs.
Supporters of GPS monitoring say it allows offenders to reintegrate with their community and reunite with loved ones without compromising public safety. Critics argue that GPS monitoring fees are too high and some programs place unnecessarily strict restrictions on offenders.
The corrections department charges a maximum of $5.50 per day for passive monitoring and $13.50 per day for active monitoring, with total fees not exceeding $300 per month, according to the agency’s website.
As of Jan. 25, 233 male and 122 female inmates were on GPS monitoring.
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss
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