In the long-running struggle for meaningful criminal justice reform in a state now overflowing with inmates, the war of words between the department of corrections and Rep. Scott Biggs is only the latest kerfuffle.
Oklahoma DOC director Joe Allbaugh announced on Tuesday that the state prison system was in the early stages of a “community supervision program.” The program would, in theory, ease overcrowding by discharging some non-violent inmates who were within 18 months of completing their sentence.
Biggs, who has a long history of combating reforms he feels endanger public safety quickly fired off a response, calling the program “reckless” and saying DOC planned on freeing 1,445 inmates, some of whom have violent crimes in their past.
“The executive branch has now moved past playing political games and on to actually endangering the public,” Biggs wrote in the release. He listed 16 inmates who were convicted of crimes like assault and battery, or accessory to murder, and urged Gov. Fallin to “abandon” the proposed plan.
Allbaugh quickly responded, issuing a release on Wednesday citing “conflicting reports” about the supervised release program.
“The 1,445 inmate number … is an initial snapshot by ODOC of inmates who could be eligible,” Allbaugh said in the release, stressing that a “thorough review” would eliminate offenders who should not be eligible for early discharge.
The program is designed to have multiple layers an offender must go through in order to be eligible — such as not having consecutive sentences, sex or drug-trafficking convictions.
Matt Elliott, a spokesman for DOC, said the process of selecting the inmates who will be put on supervised release will take “several weeks.” Prison officials are set to begin the process on Oct. 1, meaning it will likely be November at the earliest before anyone is released.
Allbaugh also took issue with Biggs’ continued criticism of the state’s definition for “violent” and “nonviolent” crimes. In Biggs’ release, the Chickasha republican called those definitions “dangerous and irresponsible.”
The definition, Allbaugh said in his release, “came from a 2015 state law … which Rep. Biggs co-authored.”
In reality, Elliott said it’s likely that less than half of Biggs’ 1,445 number end up on supervised release.
“It’s really going to come down to a few hundred,” Elliott said, though he noted DOC was “hoping for half” of the people eligible for the program to make it through.
“We’re talking about a (prison) system that has 63,000 people in it,” he said. “So this is one very small component of what we’re hoping to do under the law.”
Biggs’ statement was not the first time the former prosecutor and current House District 51 Republican has countered criminal justice reform advocates. In May, Gov. Mary Fallin criticized Biggs for working to halt four reform bills she had supported.
The bills — which would have increased diversion opportunities for nonviolent crimes, eased the expungement process, lessened sentences for prior nonviolent convictions and reduced sentences for some property crimes — can be taken up next year, though Fallin would have only a few months left on her final term by then.
And last November, after voters overwhelmingly passed two state questions which sought to ease punishments for some drug and property theft crimes, Biggs said he felt many voters didn’t understand the two bills they had just voted into law.
But still, Biggs, who did not respond to a request for comment, has maintained he is committed to criminal justice reform. Earlier this month, Nondoc.com, an Oklahoma City news organization, published a “felony survey” Biggs had constructed that asked respondents to classify each of 682 felony offenses as “violent,” a “danger to the public” or “non-violent.”
According to Nondoc.com, the survey was intended for only a select few respondents — Biggs, they reported, had emailed the Microsoft Excel file to only 150 people. Nevertheless, the website shared Biggs’ contact information and asked the public to participate. It’s unclear how many people took them up on their offer or even if Biggs’ accepted their responses.