Criminal justice reforms face critical juncture in Oklahoma Legislature

Oklahoma criminal justice reform advocates are ecstatic — almost giddy.

In less than two months, a dozen separate bills crafted with the overarching goal of lowering the state's high incarceration rate while simultaneously improving public safety have received initial favorable votes in the House or Senate and are awaiting further action.

"These bills represent the most significant progress yet on criminal justice reform in Oklahoma," said former House Speaker Kris Steele, an outspoken advocate of the reform effort. "The governor and the Legislature are doing a fantastic job with this package of reforms. This is game-changer stuff."

Among the reform measures are bills that would decrease punishment for low-level property crimes and nonviolent offenses, give judges greater sentencing discretion, create an administrative parole process and decrease the mandatory wait time for nonviolent offenders seeking to have their criminal records expunged. The latter is designed to improve employment prospects by reducing the stigma of being a convict.

"We're encouraged by the momentum that we believe has been established," said Chris Benge, Gov. Mary Fallin's chief of staff. "Having this many bills still alive in the process is very good. I think it shows there is true, sincere interest with the Legislature in trying to find some solutions to our criminal justice matters."

Beneath all the optimism, however, is an element of concern.

The task force and other criminal justice reformers have said that for the reforms to work as intended and for public safety to be preserved, the Legislature needs to allocate additional funds for mental health and substance abuse treatment and diversion programs.

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