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Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform Calls for More Action from State Officials

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform

The group behind a 2016 state question letting Oklahomans reclassify drug possession as a misdemeanor said Wednesday criminal justice reforms coming this legislative session won’t cut it.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Chairman Kris Steele said the sentencing and parole reforms promoted this week by the governor, Republican leaders and district attorneys have been watered down from a task force’s recommendations made last year.

Steele said Oklahoma has to act to reduce its prison population now.

"Our sentencing guidelines, the entire code, needs to be rewritten, but not at the expense of jettisoning the reforms that are currently in front of us," Steele said.

OCJR estimates Oklahoma’s prison population will grow 25 percent by 2026 without significant reform, making three new prisons necessary before 2023 at a cost of nearly $2 billion.

Oklahoma is on pace to surpass Louisiana for the nation’s highest incarceration rate, and sentencing plays a big role. Felicity Rose with Fwd.us said while Oklahoma sends violent criminals to prison for about the same length of time as other states, it is much harsher on nonviolent criminals.

"For property and drug crimes, Oklahoma sends people to prison for 80 percent longer than the national average," Rose said.

OCJR is also skeptical about how bills prosecutors opposed and lawmakers held up last year now have their support.

"Let’s hope the people who are in those back rooms negotiating the terms of those deals are not looking at things with only a hammer," said David Safavian with the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.