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Bills represent some steps in the right direction on Oklahoma criminal justice reform

Mar 22, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

MAKE CALLS NOW TO OKC IN SUPPORT OF THESE BILLS

THE move toward smarter corrections-related policies is a slow one in Oklahoma, although it is indeed underway, as House Speaker Jeff Hickman points out. Before he became speaker last year, Hickman, R-Fairview, spoke of the need to ease the prison population because conditions are unsafe for inmates and corrections officers. In his leadership role, he has continued to cite the benefit of lawmakers adopting a “smart on crime” approach instead of simply being tough on crime.

THE move toward smarter corrections-related policies is a slow one in Oklahoma, although it is indeed underway, as House Speaker Jeff Hickman points out.

Before he became speaker last year, Hickman, R-Fairview, spoke of the need to ease the prison population because conditions are unsafe for inmates and corrections officers. In his leadership role, he has continued to cite the benefit of lawmakers adopting a “smart on crime” approach instead of simply being tough on crime.

Hickman has offered House Bill 2179, which would make it easier for offenders to obtain a commercial driver’s license once they have been released from prison. Presently ex-convicts must pay off all fees and fines before getting a suspended license reinstated. They can do so by paying monthly toward their fines; HB 2179 would extend that practice to those seeking a commercial driver’s license.

Under the current system, nonviolent offenders “are set up to fail, reoffend and be back in the care of Oklahoma taxpayers,” Hickman said in a news release last week touting several GOP bills approved by the House this session.

One of those is HB 2168 by Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, which is aimed at offenders who want to work in about a dozen fields such as interior design, landscape architecture, cosmetology/barbering and other areas requiring special board licensing. Any felony conviction is grounds for these boards to reject an applicant. Under McCullough’s bill, the boards could approve applications if the crime wasn’t substantially related to the field of work and the applicant doesn’t pose a public threat. So for example, someone convicted of felony tax evasion could work as a barber.

HB 1518 by Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, would let judges impose shorter sentences for some crimes that now carry mandatory minimum prison time. There are more than 100 such crimes on the books. Peterson’s bill would give judges discretion in cases where the longer sentence would be unjust or the offender doesn’t present a public safety risk. It’s a reasonable proposal that stands to save the prison system money.

Another bill that should save money is House Bill 1630 by Rep. Lisa Billy, R-Lindsay, which streamlines the often-inefficient transfer of state inmates from county jails to Department of Corrections custody.

A much-discussed bill this session has been Rep. Bobby Cleveland’s HB 1117, which would allow offenders sentenced for “85 percent” crimes to begin earning good behavior credits right away. These crimes mandate that the offender serve 85 percent of the sentence before being considered for parole. Currently, credits aren’t allowed until the 85 percent threshold has been crossed.

The House, which rejected the idea in 2014, passed the bill this session but with an amendment that Cleveland fears will result in inmates serving at least 90 percent of their time before credits can be accrued. That would cost the state millions of dollars over time, something Oklahoma can’t afford.

Peterson says the corrections system should be used to keep the most dangerous criminals off the streets, but also help rehabilitate those who merit a second chance. “We cannot continue to go down our current path and expect to fulfill these goals,” she said. She’s right about that.

It has taken years for Oklahoma to get where it is today, with a prison population that exceeds the buildings’ capacity and continues to grow annually. It will take time to curb that growth. Overall, these bills represent steps in the right direction.