Approach to ’85 percent’ crimes is one challenge for Oklahoma criminal justice panel by The Oklahoman Editorial Board

Dec 12, 2016 | Oklahoman Editorial Board

IT will be interesting to see what recommendations are made by a task force that’s been working on criminal justice reform since July. One thing that seems evident is that Oklahoma’s list of “85 percent” crimes won’t be getting much shorter.

These crimes require offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences before they can be considered for parole. The original list of crimes, which were the product of a 1997 bill called the Truth in Sentencing Act, related to violent offenders and numbered in the single digits.

Within months of signing that bill, then-Gov. Frank Keating endorsed an overhaul of the legislation, calling for anyone imprisoned for a felony to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. A new bill was signed in 1999. The list of 85 percent crimes now stands at 22.

And it may not contract by much, judging from a recent story by The Oklahoman’s Nolan Clay. The president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, Mike Fields, said he would oppose “any proposals that are contrary to Oklahoma’s public safety interests.” Fields’ colleague in Oklahoma County, David Prater, said any change to the 85 percent law is a nonstarter.

Both men are part of the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, which was formed by Gov. Mary Fallin with a goal of recommending ways to reduce the state’s inmate population and improve public safety.

Clay obtained a policy option put before task force members that suggested removing more than a dozen crimes from the 85 percent list, including second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, lewd molestation and child abuse, and making inmates imprisoned for those offenses eligible for release under close supervision after they have completed 70 percent of their sentences

A person sentenced to 35 years in prison on an 85 percent crime must now serve just under 30 years before being considered for parole. A change to 70 percent would make that inmate eligible for release from prison after serving about 24 1/2 years.

Fallin’s general counsel, Jennifer Chance, acknowledged that a task force working group has recommended some changes to the 85 percent policy. However, those “only concerned drug-related crimes and not victim crimes.”

Chance said the task force has worked to address the prison system’s nonviolent population. Two-thirds of males and 70 percent of females fall under that umbrella, she said.

Clay spoke with other task force members who said shorter prison stays may be recommended for drug offenders who are convicted of aggravated drug trafficking or aggravated drug manufacturing. But not for violent crimes.

The task force report is to be presented to Fallin next week. The pushback by DAs is to be expected, perhaps, but is somewhat discouraging. To be sure, Oklahoma’s worst offenders must be made to serve the most time. On the other hand, the Department of Corrections has said it expects to see an increase of about 2,500 “85 percent” prisoners from fiscal year 2013 to FY 2021, at a cost to the agency of $259 million. That would indicate that some change in course is a must.