Bills aimed at easing the reentry process for Oklahomans incarcerated received strong bipartisan support in 2021. 

The Senate and House unanimously voted to enact the Sarah Stitt Act, which directs the Department of Corrections to ensure prisoners obtain state-issued identification cards prior to their release. Both chambers passed House Bill 1795, which modifies when a driver’s license can be revoked due to failure to pay court fines and fees. 

Lawmakers will look to expand on those reforms when the 2022 legislative session convenes on Feb. 7. 

Among the proposals is House Bill 3316, which would authorize the state to automatically expunge certain criminal records, and Senate Bill 1458, which would eliminate several court fines and fees imposed on people convicted of crimes. 

To become law, bills must pass through House and Senate committees and receive favorable votes from both chambers. The governor then has the authority to sign or veto the legislation. 

Here are 10 criminal justice bills worth following during the upcoming legislative session: 

Creating a Public Domestic Violence Offender Registry

House Bill 3263

Denise Brewer

Author: Rep. Denise Brewer, D-Tulsa

What it Proposes: Directing the Department of Corrections to create and maintain a public database of people convicted of felony domestic violence offenses. 

Why it Matters: Proponents of a domestic violence registry say it would allow people to make informed decisions about who to associate with. But many domestic violence victims advocates are skeptical of public registries, saying only a small percentage of abusers would ever be listed and that it’s uncertain whether registries are effective in reducing crime. 

There were a record number of domestic violence reports in Oklahoma in 2020, OSBI data shows. Experts say lockdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic forced families together for long periods and made victims more vulnerable to violence. 

Lowering Minimum Hiring Age for Correctional Officers

House Bill 3284

Justin Humphrey

Author: Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane 

What it Proposes: Lowering the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ minimum hiring age from 20 to 18. Applicants would be required to have a high school diploma or GED equivalent. 

Why it Matters: The Department of Corrections has struggled to hire and retain correctional officers. As of Oct. 31, there were 471 fully-funded correctional officer vacancies, agency budget documents show. 

The corrections department says lowering the minimum hiring age would allow it to expand recruiting efforts and help alleviate severe understaffing in dozens of correctional facilities. Critics argue that teenagers are not emotionally prepared to do the sensitive and often dangerous work of supervising prisoners, and the agency should focus on raising pay and improving working conditions. 

Neighboring Texas, Kansas and New Mexico employ correctional officers as young as 18, but most states and the federal government set their minimum hiring age at 21. 

Humphrey also introduced legislation that would raise the agency’s starting salary for correctional officers to $39,200, or $18.84 an hour. Newly hired correctional officers currently earn $15.74 per hour. 

Creating a Death Penalty Conviction Integrity Unit 

House Bill 3305

Author: Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane 

What it Proposes: Directing the Pardon and Parole Board to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit, consisting of an independent attorney and investigator, to look into death penalty cases where a plausible innocence claim is presented. 

Why it Matters: A bipartisan group of lawmakers believes there should be more scrutiny in death penalty cases where doubt of guilt exists.

The proposed Conviction Integrity Unit would investigate such cases and deliver its findings to the Pardon and Parole Board, attorney general and district attorney where the case was prosecuted and the prisoner applying for relief. The unit would not have the authority to grant or deny commutation or clemency. 

State Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, introduced similar legislation last year. The measure cleared the House Criminal Justice and Corrections committee. 

Authorizing Automatic Expungement 

House Bill 3316

Nicole Miller

Author: Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond 

What it Proposes: Authorizing the state to automatically expunge certain criminal records. 

Why it Matters: State law allows a person with a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony criminal record to apply for expungement five years after the completion of their sentence. However, the expungement process is costly and difficult to complete without hiring an attorney.

Automatic expungement could remove financial barriers and provide relief to more than 100,000 Oklahomans, criminal justice reform advocates say. Studies show expungement significantly increases the likelihood of a person with a criminal record securing stable housing and employment.

If implemented, a computer program would identify cases eligible for expungement and notify the arresting agency, district attorney’s office and other relevant stakeholders. The records would be automatically sealed from public inspection if no party objects. 

Criminal justice policy researchers say it would cost between $3 million and $5 million to create an automatic expungement system. The state could opt to use American Rescue Plan funds to pay for the necessary computer equipment. 

Outlawing Unmarked Police Vehicles in Traffic Stops

Cody Rogers

Senate Bill 1109

Authors: Sens. Cody Rogers, R-Tulsa; Rob Standridge, R-Norman; George Young, D-Oklahoma City 

What it Proposes: Prohibiting police departments from using unmarked vehicles for traffic enforcement.

Why it Matters: Rogers argues that unmarked vehicles are being used to drive up traffic ticket revenue and do not increase public safety. 

“People tend to pay more attention and have better driving habits when marked police cars are around,” he said in a statement. “If we’re concerned about public safety, then we should get more of those vehicles out there.”

Several police chiefs have spoken out against the bill, saying unmarked vehicles are a vital tool that allows officers to catch speeding and aggressive drivers. 

Eliminating Certain Court Fines and Fees

Senate Bill 1458

Roger Thompson

Author: Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah 

What it Proposes: Ending some fines and fees for people convicted of crimes, including payments to six revolving funds and a $40-per-month district attorney’s supervision fee. General fund revenue would compensate for the fine payments. 

Why it Matters: Oklahoma’s court system relies on court collections to fund basic operations. From 2007 to 2019, fines and fees accounted for around 66 to 90% of district court funding, a Tulsa World analysis found. The burden disproportionately falls on low-income individuals who are often unable to pay and fall into a cycle of debt. 

Justice reform advocates argue that state appropriations, rather than fines and fees collections, should be the primary source of court funding. Members of the House and Senate held interim studies last fall to examine possible solutions to how courts are funded. 

“Fines are a necessary part of punishment for crimes, but the fine should not be worse than the crime itself,” State Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, said in a statement following the House interim study. “We are working to find a balance between fines that are appropriate and fines that are unnecessarily punitive, while also seeing how state-appropriated dollars can help balance out the system.”

Reforming Drug Courts

Senate Bill 1548

Author: Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah 

What it Proposes: Directing counties with a drug court program to enter into an administrative contract with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The agency would provide oversight and allocate funds for counties to operate the program. It would also task judges, rather than district attorneys, with deciding who is and isn’t placed into drug court. 

Why it Matters: Some justice reform advocates say the state’s rural drug court programs are underfunded and lack resources that larger counties have. They also argue district attorneys hold too much power in deciding who may enter into the program. 

Overhauling Oklahoma’s Criminal Code 

Senate Bill 1590

Darrell Weaver

Author: Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore 

What it Proposes: Creating a felony classification system that categorizes crimes by severity. 

Why it Matters: Unlike most states, Oklahoma doesn’t have a crime classification system. Lawmakers have instead opted to add and remove crimes individually, resulting in a winding list of offenses in the Oklahoma Statutes

Proponents of implementing a felony classification say it would give prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors a more accurate estimate of how long a person sentenced to prison would remain incarcerated before becoming eligible for release. Justice reform advocates warn the proposed classification plan could lead to longer prison stays for people convicted of nonviolent offenses because of minimum time served requirements. 

Decertifying Police Accused of Misconduct 

Senate Bill 1537

Author: Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore

What it Proposes: It would authorize the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) to suspend a peace officer’s certification if they were previously terminated or suspended for cause, even if they weren’t convicted of a crime. It also requires all peace officers to submit proof that they completed required continuing education courses every three years. 

Why it Matters: Under current state law, CLEET may only decertify officers if they have been convicted of a felony, misdemeanor domestic violence offense or misdemeanor of moral turpitude. Justice reform advocates argue that the policy isn’t stringent enough and allows bad officers to remain on the job. 

Ending Juvenile Life Without Parole 

Senate Bill 1258

George Young

Author: Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City 

What it Proposes: Prohibiting courts from sentencing juveniles to life without parole. It would also forbid juvenile prison sentences that exceed 20 years. 

Why it Matters: Juvenile justice experts say children who commit serious crimes are typically raised in abusive households and are less likely than adults to weigh the consequences of their actions. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that juvenile life without parole sentences should be reserved only for extreme murder convictions where the child is incapable of rehabilitation. 

Thirty-one states, including neighboring Texas, Kansas and Arkansas, have outlawed life without parole sentences for juveniles. In 2019, The Frontier reported that 36 Oklahoma prisoners were serving juvenile without parole sentences. 

Young filed similar legislation in 2020. The measure failed to advance past the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Keaton Ross covers democracy and criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.

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