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Corrections reform is a difficult idea to sell to Oklahoma lawmakers Debate over ‘85 percent’ crimes

Mar 9, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

A reasonable attempt to alleviate some of the pressure on Oklahoma’s crowded prisons has already been weakened by an amendment, and could very well wind up getting scuttled as happened last year. Meaningful corrections reform can indeed be a difficult idea to sell to lawmakers. Oklahoma inmates sentenced for “85 percent” crimes cannot receive earned credits until they have served 85 percent of their time. Consequently, inmates wind up serving much more than 85 percent. The Oklahoman archives Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, would like to provide a carrot to prisoners sentenced for crimes that require they complete 85 percent of the sentence before they can be considered for probation. Cleveland proposes in House Bill 1117 that inmates be allowed, upon entering prison, to earn credits for good behavior and for completing educational and job skill programs.

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: March 8, 2015

A reasonable attempt to alleviate some of the pressure on Oklahoma’s crowded prisons has already been weakened by an amendment, and could very well wind up getting scuttled as happened last year. Meaningful corrections reform can indeed be a difficult idea to sell to lawmakers.

Oklahoma inmates sentenced for “85 percent” crimes cannot receive earned credits until they have served 85 percent of their time. Consequently, inmates wind up serving much more than 85 percent. The Oklahoman archives

Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, would like to provide a carrot to prisoners sentenced for crimes that require they complete 85 percent of the sentence before they can be considered for probation. Cleveland proposes in House Bill 1117 that inmates be allowed, upon entering prison, to earn credits for good behavior and for completing educational and job skill programs.

Presently, inmates sentenced for “85 percent” crimes cannot receive earned credits until they have served 85 percent of their time. Consequently, inmates wind up serving much more than 85 percent. This is a disincentive for inmates to behave and try to better themselves while behind bars.

Cleveland ran his bill in 2014 and was confident he had the votes to get it approved. But when a colleague tagged the measure as “soft on crime” during debate on the House floor, it quickly got voted down. He’s back with it this year and facing a similar argument.

A chief opponent is Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, who comes by his disdain for 85 percent offenders honestly — he’s a former prosecutor in Grady County who handled his share of cases involving violent offenders.

During discussion in a House committee, Biggs noted several cases where violent offenders who were released from Department of Corrections custody before serving 100 percent of their sentence after receiving earned credits went on to commit violent crimes again. “They are now wanting to extend these to the ones we know can commit these acts,” he said.

Later, Biggs said the bill was a “horrible” idea. “Rapists, murderers, child molesters, child abusers — any bill to release them early is a bad bill in my opinion.”

He’ll get no argument here on that point. But HB 1117, and its companion bill in the Senate, would not result in 85 percent offenders being released early. Those offenders would still have to serve at least 85 percent of their time, as required by law. It’s the amount of time after that 85 percent that could be reduced. Characterizing this bill as an early release mechanism is disingenuous.

It’s also worth noting that the list of 85 percent crimes, which has only continued to grow through the years, comprises serious offenses but not necessarily violent offenses. First-degree burglary and some drug offenses, for example, are 85 percent crimes. Should those imprisoned for these sorts of crimes have the same chance — none — at earned credits as those sentenced for truly violent offenses?

Biggs succeeded in attaching an amendment to HB 1117 requiring that it only apply to newly sentenced inmates. Thus, all those currently serving time for 85 percent crimes wouldn’t benefit from a change in the law.

Cleveland’s bill is supported by DOC Director Robert Patton and by Sean Wallace, head of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals. They both note its potential to help keep inmates in line. Biggs wants to defeat the bill entirely. It will be interesting to see whether the full House is willing to take this step, which would save money and ease prison crowding, or chooses instead to maintain the status quo.