Criminal justice reform bill sees pushback from district attorneys

Prosecutors say the proposal could have far-reaching, unintended consequence and clog the courts with old cases.

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Trent Baggett. Courtesy
District attorneys have raised concerns that a bipartisan bill to make criminal justice reforms Oklahoma voters approved in 2016 retroactive could clog the courts with people asking for lighter prison sentences.

Not even a week in to the legislative session, there’s already talk of amending the proposal — potentially impacting the sentences of thousands of people in Oklahoma prisons for drug-related convictions.

State Question 780 changed simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor in Oklahoma. House Bill 1269 would make that change retroactive.

The first draft of the bill calls for converting the felony convictions for people charged with simple drug possession before July 1, 2017 to misdemeanors. But the language and specifics of the proposal could could change with the input of the powerful Oklahoma District Attorneys Association.

Trent Baggett, executive director of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, said the bill as currently written could have far-reaching, unintended consequences for a large number of people who have been sentenced to prison because they had one or more prior felony conviction for drug possession.

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Prosecutors often use prior felony drug convictions as an enhancement tool to ask the courts for tougher sentences for repeat offenders.

If all of those felony convictions suddenly become misdemeanors, courts could potentially become clogged with people asking for reduced sentences for many crimes other than drug possession, Baggett said.

“A lot of time, these things can be dominoes,” Baggett said. “If you push this button over here on the far right, it messes with something over here to your left.”

Kris Steele, from the group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, speaks at a press conference Wednesday, March 7 at the Oklahoma Capitol. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Froniter

Brian Hermanson, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association and district attorney for Kay and Noble counties, said he believes the proposal could create hundreds of new court hearings on cases that have already been adjudicated.

The District Attorneys Association has recommended the process be shifted away from the courts to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, where people can apply for a commutation.

“It can be resolved that way without being transported back to the county where they were sentenced to take up the judge and the DAs time,” he said.

House Majority Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, who authored HB1269 with Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, says he believes a compromise is possible and that there have been talks to amend the proposal. That could include moving some of the process away from the courts to the Pardon and Parole Board combined with an expedited expungement process for people seeking to get a felony conviction off their record.

“I firmly believe there will be a robust bipartisan criminal justice reform package with the district attorneys buy-in and criminal justice reform advocates buy-in,” Echols said. “I think it will be even bigger than what we originally thought.”

Criminal justice reform advocates say the legislation is needed to help ease strain on Oklahoma’s overcrowded prison system.

There are 1,100 people in prison for simple possession who could be released under the bill, according to the group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, which supports HB1269.

An additional 1,400 people in prison for simple possession and additional convictions who could apply to have their simple possession case reclassified.

Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, described the district attorneys argument that the proposal would mire down the courts with people seeking lighter sentences “hard to believe” and “disingenuous.”

People serving prison time for drug possession already have the opportunity to apply for a commutation under existing laws but few are granted, Steele said.

“We are literally talking about people’s lives and administering justice for individuals caught up in this situation,” Steele said. “It didn’t seem like it was a burden for them to hand these people criminal convictions for issues of addiction.”

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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