Looking to prevent widespread COVID-19 outbreaks behind bars, corrections officials in several states moved quickly in 2020 to release medically vulnerable and nonviolent prisoners.
Wisconsin freed 1,600 people from its prisons from March 2 through May 4, 2020, most of them serving time for parole and probation violations. The Iowa Department of Corrections approved the release of 700 prisoners on March 23 of last year.
In Oklahoma, just 12 of 126 prisoners whose cases were reviewed during a special medical parole hearing last May were granted early release.
Some medically vulnerable prisoners weren’t eligible for release last spring, advocates and lawmakers say, in part because of how state law defines medical parole. To qualify, a prisoner must be deemed dying or near death by the corrections department’s medical director.
Senate Bill 320, enacted by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt in April, clarifies who’s eligible for medical parole and makes a greater number of prisoners eligible for early release during a health crisis. Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan and Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan authored the bill.
Starting Nov. 1, medically frail prisoners who can’t perform two or more activities of daily living on their own will be eligible for release on medical parole. Medically vulnerable prisoners, who suffer from conditions such as diabetes, asthma or hepatitis C, will be eligible for medical parole if the governor has declared a catastrophic health emergency.
Garvin, who works as an administrator at the West Wind Assisted Living Center in Marlow, said in an interview that the bill should help save the state money without compromising public safety. She said the pandemic wasn’t her primary motivator in carrying the bill, but the measure will help get vulnerable populations out of prison if another deadly virus spreads.
“When you have people in the end stage of life that are unable to get out of bed, that’s when a lot of people cost the most money because of the supplies you’re using and the staffing needs that you have,” Garvin said. “For me, it was on a fiscally conservative stance. I felt like we really needed to save taxpayer money for people at the end of their life who, because of their physical function, are no longer a threat to society.”
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit led by former House Speaker Kris Steele, approached Garvin with the legislation. While some of the group’s requests, such as medical parole eligibility for pregnant women, were written out of the bill, Steele said S.B. 320 is a positive criminal justice reform measure.
A surge in COVID-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant and lagging vaccine uptake is hitting Oklahoma just in time for back to school. And schools can’t require masks unless Gov. Stitt declares another state of emergency.
Interim studies, set to take place from August through November, often help guide future legislation.
“We want to make sure that the state of Oklahoma is fair in looking at the health condition of a human being and not necessarily their charge or conviction,” Steele said. “I do think Senate Bill 320 took a significant step forward in helping clarify who would be eligible to be considered for medical parole.”
While S.B. 320 clarifies who qualifies for medical parole, the state Pardon and Parole Board has the final say in who is released.
Here are four other influential criminal justice bills that were enacted during the 2021 legislative session:
More Resources For Returning Citizens
Bill Number: House Bill 1679
Authors: Reps. Marilyn Stark, R-Bethany, Brian Hill, R-Mustang, Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, Garry Mize, R-Guthrie, Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, John Talley, R-Stillwater, Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, Logan Phillips, R-Mounds; Sens. Michael Bergstrom, R-Adair, Darrell Weaver, R-Moore
This bill, known as the Sarah Stitt Act, directs the Department of Corrections to work with the Department of Human Services to ensure people released from prison can secure post-incarceration employment. House and Senate members voted unanimously in favor of the bill.
Starting Nov. 1, the corrections department will be required to identify prisoners scheduled for release within nine months and help them obtain the following documents and identification:
- A copy of the prisoner’s vocational training or work record
- A certified copy of their birth certificate
- A Social Security card or replacement Social Security card
- A work resume
- Documentation that the prisoner has completed a mock interview
Hill, one of the bill’s House authors, said in a statement that H.B. 1679 should prove beneficial to a population that faces significant obstacles to employment.
“Right now, we’re not helping our citizens who have paid their debt to society get back on their feet as much as we should be,” Hill said. “Not only does this bill help grow our economy and promote public safety, but frankly, it’s the right thing to do. With the signing of this legislation, I hope we as a state can become better neighbors to these Oklahomans.”
The bill is named in honor of First Lady Sarah Stitt, who has worked with community organizations and nonprofits to bring job fairs to state prisons.
Fewer Drivers License Suspensions
Bill Number: House Bill 1795
Authors: Reps. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond, Daniel Pae, R-Lawton, John Talley, R-Stillwater, Eric Roberts, R-Oklahoma City; Sen. Kim David, R-Porter
This bill outlaws driver’s license revocations for non-traffic-related offenses and allows people whose driving privileges have been revoked to attain a provisional license.
The state Department of Public Safety has the authority to suspend a person’s driver’s license if they fail to pay traffic or court fines or if they’re convicted of certain offenses involving a motor vehicle. In 2015, Oklahoma Watch reported that former prisoners re-entering society must often pay thousands of dollars in fees to have their driver’s license reinstated.
Starting Nov. 1, a person whose license has been suspended because of failure to pay a fine or fee can petition for a provisional license that would allow them to drive from 6:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. with certain exceptions.
The petitioner would be required to pay at least $5 per month towards their court fines and fees to keep the provisional license. If their suspended license hasn’t expired, they wouldn’t be required to take another driver’s test.
Miller, the bill’s House author, said in a statement that the bill will make it easier for people coming out of the justice system to keep their job and pay off their outstanding court debt.
“House Bill 1795 protects public safety while also giving people who have left incarceration more opportunity to pursue employment and education, which is so important to rejoining society successfully,” Miller said. “I have been working on this legislation for several years and was very glad to see it pass the floor with wide support from my colleagues.”
Gov. Stitt earned kudos from public health officials for publicizing his vaccination in March. Since then?
Expanded GPS Monitoring Eligibility
Bill Number: Senate Bill 456
Sponsors: Sen. Bill Coleman, R-Ponca and Rep. Garry Mize, R-Guthrie
This bill makes more Oklahoma prisoners eligible for release through the Department of Corrections’ GPS electronic monitoring program. S.B. 456 cleared the House with a 77-20 vote and the Senate by a 43-1 vote.
Under current state law, prisoners must meet the following criteria to be released on GPS monitoring:
- 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.
Starting Nov. 1, many nonviolent offenders, regardless of their initial security classification or sentence, will be 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
- Prisoners with an active protection order or misconduct allegation
- Those convicted of a crime against a child or vulnerable adult
- Prisoners who reject substance abuse treatment or who require specialized treatment that’s not offered in the community
The State Board of Corrections requested S.B. 456 during a meeting last November. Corrections department records show there were 264 people on GPS monitoring on June 1, down 58% from a year ago.
Expanded Juvenile Criminal Record Expungement
Bill Number: House Bill 1799
Authors: Reps. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond, Cindy Munson, D-Oklahoma City, Jose Cruz, D-Oklahoma City, Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa; Sen. Paul Rosino, R-Oklahoma City
This bill makes it easier for young adults with a juvenile criminal record to ask the court for expungement.
Starting Nov. 1, the young adult, their parent, legal guardian or attorney may petition for expungement once they completed their sentence and reached 18 years old. They must have also paid all fines and fees, fulfilled any court-ordered obligations and kept a clean adult criminal record.
Under current state law, those with a juvenile criminal record must wait until they turn 21 to request expungement.
Rep. Jose Cruz, one of the bill’s House authors, said in a news release that this law will help remove barriers to employment and housing that people with juvenile criminal records face. While juvenile court records aren’t available on publicly accessible websites like OSCN, they can show up during a background check from a prospective landlord or employer.
“To a lot of Oklahomans doing their best to improve their circumstance, this policy change could be the difference in failure and success,” Cruz said.
In one Oklahoma prison, 82% of inmates tested positive for COVID-19. One of them was Robert Lavern.
Five Criminal Justice Bills That Weren’t Signed Into Law
Increased Penalties for Shoplifters
Bill Number: Senate Bill 334
Authors: Reps. Rande Worthen, R-Lawton and Josh West, R-Grove; Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle
This bill would have allowed prosecutors to seek felony charges against certain shoplifters who commit multiple thefts over several months.
Per state law, if a person commits two or more thefts over 90 days and the total value of stolen goods exceeds $1,000, prosecutors can raise the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. S.B. 334 would have increased the calculating period from 90 to 180 days.
The measure passed through the House and Senate but never moved on to the governor’s desk.
Norm Smaligo, president of the Oklahoma Retail Crime Association, said his group requested the legislation to deter serial shoplifters who started taking more valuable goods after State Question 780 was enacted. The ballot initiative raised the threshold for felony theft from $500 to $1,000.
While total annual larceny crimes in Oklahoma dropped 4.2% from 2016 to 2019, the number of shoplifting offenses increased 4.3% over the same four-year period, state data shows. The total value of stolen goods also increased from $230 million in 2016 to $256 million in 2019.
“If someone walks into my store every day and steals ten $1 widgets, that’s not going to affect my bottom line,” Smaligo said. “But if someone comes in every day and steals three DeWalt drills, that’s going to seriously put a pinch on me. That’s the problem with focusing on the number of generic larceny crimes, it’s anything stolen from anywhere.”
The ACLU of Oklahoma and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform both opposed the legislation, arguing that it would roll back S.Q. 780 and drive up the state’s incarceration rate.
Steele with the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform said there’s no evidence that there’s a shoplifting epidemic in Oklahoma and S.B. 334 would not have enhanced public safety in Oklahoma.
“Generally speaking, people engaged in these activities are stealing for survival, because they’re in extreme poverty or because they have an untreated mental health condition,” he said.
Ending Nonviolent Sentence Enhancements
Bill Number: Senate Bill 704
Sponsors: Sen. Dave Rader
This bill would have prohibited courts from imposing sentence enhancements on defendants who have never been convicted of a violent felony, defined as any offense listed in Section 571 of Title 57 of the Oklahoma Statutes.
While similar to State Question 805, SB 704 would not have amended the state constitution and would have ensured that all domestic violence, animal cruelty and sexual offenses remain eligible for enhancement.
The bill passed 7-4 through the Senate Public Safety Committee but stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform advocated on behalf of the bill, arguing that it would reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and save the state $137 million over 10 years.
“My sense is that the tough-on-crime folks, law enforcement and district attorneys, and their political allies lined up against it,” Steele said. “I think it was also pretty close to the vote on State Question 805, although it did address every concern that was addressed in 805.”
Creating a Death Penalty Conviction Integrity Unit
Bill Number: House Bill 1551
Sponsors: Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow and Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee
This bill would have authorized the state Pardon and Parole Board to hire an independent investigator and attorney to investigate death penalty cases where the prisoner presented a plausible claim of evidence.
The investigator and attorney would have been authorized to conduct an independent investigation and present its findings to the Pardon and Parole Board, state Attorney General and district attorney that prosecuted the prisoner’s case. Attorney General Mike Hunter, who announced his resignation on May 26, wrote last June that the Pardon and Parole Board has the authority to recommend commutation for prisoners sentenced to death.
The bill cleared the House Criminal Justice and Corrections committee but failed to advance to a floor vote.
While legal, the death penalty in Oklahoma has been on hold since 2015 after several executions were carried out incorrectly. Hunter told a legislative committee last October that the death penalty could return sometime in 2021.
Allowing Correctional Facilities to Sell Tobacco Products
Bill Number: House Bill 1114
Sponsors: Rep. Rick West, R-Heavener and Sen. Mark Allen, R-Wilburton
This bill would have allowed the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to sell tobacco products to prisoners. The measure cleared a criminal justice and corrections committee but failed in the House by a 35-60 vote.
Most U.S. states and corrections departments have banned smoking in their facilities over the past decade. Tobacco smoking in Oklahoma prisons has been illegal since 2012.
While smoking causes heart disease, lung cancer and other ailments that are expensive to treat, some states have reversed their tobacco smoking bans in hopes of stopping the trade of contraband tobacco and indoor smoking. Mississippi’s corrections department announced last December that they would allow smoking in designated outdoor areas.
West, who authored a similar bill in 2018, told CNHI Oklahoma three years ago that the tobacco ban created a black market and gave more power to prison gangs.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections did not request or endorse H.B. 1114.
Creating an Oklahoma Prisoner Reentry Pilot Program
Bill Number: House Bill 2729
Sponsors: Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City and Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City
This bill would have directed the state Department of Corrections to establish a Prisoner Reentry Pilot Program for parolees in Oklahoma or Tulsa County.
State corrections employees would have provided specialized support to parolees enrolled in the program, including assistance in finding housing, transportation and substance abuse services. The agency would have been authorized to use funds from the federal government or private nonprofit organizations to fund the program.
H.B. 2729 advanced through the House by a 78-14 but failed to move past the Senate Public Safety Committee.
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