OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday rolled out a new criminal justice reform package.
“With only a few weeks remaining in the legislative session, I am keenly focused on ensuring significant movement is made on criminal justice reform,” Stitt said. Lawmakers must adjourn by 5 p.m. May 31 but could finish earlier.
“Oklahomans and community leaders agree that we need to reform the funding structure for our district attorneys and courts,” he said. “We must invest in diversion and treatment programs. We must release nonviolent offenders from prison who were sentenced on drug charges under old laws.”
He believes the reforms can be done this year in a manner that keeps the public safe and ensures those facing addiction and health challenges can get a second chance.
“Much more progress needs to be made,” Stitt said.
Stitt is backing a new funding structure for prosecutors and courts.
It would send fines and fees to the state’s General Revenue Fund to be appropriated. It aims to eliminate the conflict of interest in the system between generating revenue and administering justice, he said.
Stitt is seeking $10 million to break the incarceration cycle, address mental health needs and help with reintegration.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said $10 million is a good start, but the figure needs to grow to $40 million or $50 million to really make a difference.
Stitt wants lawmakers to send him House Bill 1373 that would let those with a nonviolent felony conviction to be licensed in occupations as long as the job is not substantially related to the offense. The goal is to reduce barriers to employment.
Stitt supports a compromise to create an expedited commutation process to release offenders convicted of drug possession crimes or any other felony that would now be a misdemeanor as a result of law changes.
Stitt also backs an expedited process to expunge the conviction of those convicted on drug possession crimes or other felonies that would now be misdemeanors due to law changes.
His office said amending House Bill 1269 — the original measure backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform — allows court to modify felony sentences to misdemeanors, leading to the release of people in prison for State Question 780 offenses like drug possession.
Passed by voters in November 2016, State Question 780 downgraded several nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and reduced the associated sentences.
“This compromise marries justice reform with public safety,” he said. “I urge swift passage.”
Stitt also wants to overhaul the criminal code to remove outdated crimes, assign classifications, determine what is violent and nonviolent and create new sentencing and enhancements standards.
The Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council is working on recommendations.
Lawmakers primarily ignored recommendations from a prior sentencing commission, which they later abolished.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, called the Stitt proposal a good start but frustrating.
“We have had a lot of good starts on criminal justice reform and then something always gets in the way, like it seems it has in this case,” she said.
Lawmakers have studied sentencing reforms for several years, she said.
Several criminal justice reform bills unanimously passed the House, she said. A bail reform measure also got few no votes, she said.
“So, it is frustrating we are once again having to wait until next year to really get serious about criminal justice reform,” Virgin said.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is supporting five bills it says will reduce the prison population, save the state money and keep families together. Kris Steele, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform executive director, said the Stitt proposal had positive measures.
“Once coupled with the sentencing and bail reforms already moving with majority votes in the Legislature, this full package of reforms would move Oklahoma out of No. 1 for incarceration,” said Steele, former Oklahoma House Speaker.