Oklahoma is close to outpacing Louisiana as the highest incarcerating state in the nation and criminal justice reform advocates say they are troubled by what they perceive is a lack of transparency surrounding negotiations over legislation aimed at reducing the prison population.
Speaking at a press conference at the Oklahoma Capitol on Wednesday, Kris Steele, chairman of the group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said few specifics have been made available on a deal reached with district attorneys to allow the bills to move forward in the Legislature.
The package of reform bills are targeted at reducing long prison sentences for nonviolent offenses like drug and property crimes and came from recommendations from the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force.
Steele and other criminal justice reform advocates said they are concerned any deal with district attorneys could weaken the proposed reforms and keep more people incarcerated.
Oklahoma corrections officials have warned the state’s prison population will grow by 25 percent over the next 10 years, costing the state a projected $2 billion.
“If these six bills pass, then all the prison growth is stopped and we will save our state $2 billion,” Steele said. “We absolutely must have this coalition’s help to get this done this session.”
New data released Wednesday by FWD.us reveals that Oklahoma sent 91 percent more women to prison per capita than the national average and held people in prison 80 percent longer for drug and property crimes during the 2017 fiscal year.
The bills carrying the criminal justice reform language, which had the support last year of Gov. Mary Fallin, were blocked in committee after lawmakers, criminal justice reform advocates and prosecutors could not come to an agreement on what the bills should look like.
A report obtained by The Frontier earlier this week claims a proposal backed by the district attorneys would result in only a minor difference to the high prison population growth projected for Oklahoma in coming years. The changes would do little to stop the state from building “at least” two new prisons that would cost more than $1 billion, the report claims.
On Monday Fallin announced a “conceptual agreement” between legislators, district attorneys and advocates to pass the criminal justice reform measures, but little was offered in the way of specifics.
“These reforms are targeted at nonviolent offenders, many of whom suffer from addiction and mental health issues,” Fallin said in the announcement. “The agreement reached is a huge first step forward, moving our state much closer to our goal of reducing the incarceration crisis while keeping our communities safe.”
Proposed reform legislation that has yet to be heard in the Legislature includes Senate Bill 689, which would give people convicted of life without parole for drug trafficking the ability to seek to have their sentences modified.
A former Oklahoma prison inmate, Damita Price, 49, who was sentenced to life without parole for drug trafficking in 1996, also spoke Wednesday at the Capitol.
Price said she turned to selling drugs to pay for her son’s medical bills after he was diagnosed with the incurable, rare genetic disorder Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
Price served 21 years in prison before Fallin commuted her sentence. She’s been out of prison for three months.
“Give someone a chance — let these people go,” Price said, choking back tears. “Everybody in there needs a chance — All it takes is one chance.”