The top item on criminal justice reform advocates’ agenda has stalled as the Oklahoma legislature passed its first major deadline.
Senate Bill 704 would have greatly limited the practice of lengthening prison sentences because of someone’s previous, nonviolent felony convictions. According to Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, enhancements mean Oklahomans end up serving prison sentences 70% longer than the national average for property crimes and 79% longer for drug crimes.
The bill was also retroactive, so it would have benefited people in prison serving enhanced sentences. Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Policy Counsel Colleen McCarty said the state is making progress releasing people from prison and preparing them for life outside, but those can’t be the only actions taken.
"We have to stop putting so many people inside of prison to begin with, and we have to get the people in there that are in on excessive sentences — we have to help them get released from those long periods of time that we’re just paying for as taxpayers that are not giving us any returns on investment," McCarty said.
SB 704 was a modified version of State Question 805, which Oklahomans voted down in November. It made changes to address concerns advocates heard about SQ805. SB704 put changes in statute rather than amending the constitution and made sure some felonies state law considers nonviolent, like animal cruelty, weren't included. But SB704 did not make it out of its committees before last week’s deadline for bills to advance to the floor.
An Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs analysis estimated passing SB704 would reduce the state's prison population by 1,400 and save $137 million over the next decade. McCarty said with the bill done, a proposed violence prevention fund is now in jeopardy, too.
"That fund would have been funded by SB704’s savings. And so, that’s another loss for the state," McCarty said.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections disputes OCPA’s estimated savings from SB704. A statement from the agency noted DOC’s budget this fiscal year was cut more than $24 million and said the analysis doesn’t take into account realities of budget forecasting, sentencing and prison operations.
OCPA estimated up to $142 million in savings from SQ805. DOC disputed that analysis as well.