Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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The statewide COVID-19 shutdown may have dramatically impacted most Oklahomans, but it may not have deterred serious crimes, law enforcement officials told lawmakers Thursday. At the same time, the state could soon face a rash of lawsuits challenging the legality of government actions that forced business closures and the loss of citizens’ jobs.

Officials made those comments to members of the Legislature who participated in a joint House-Senate budget hearing on public safety agencies.

Sen. Darrell Weaver, who previously served as director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, asked several agency officials what impact the COVID-19 shutdown has had on crime.

“You obviously are on the front lines,” said Weaver, R-Moore. “What’s the crime doing right now in Oklahoma?”

Weaver noted that the COVID-19 shutdown has reduced citizen movement and the public perception is that the event has indirectly reduced crime.

Ricky Adams, director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, said that is not the case.

“When you talk about violent crime, the requests that we are getting have not stopped at all. They’ve been pretty flat,” Adams said. “They’ve been staying, relatively, about the same as far as the number of calls. The number of requests we’re getting from local organizations to come in and do investigations and stuff are up. They’ve been asking for us to come in and assist more often than they have in the past. So, the crime rate has been relatively stable.”

He also indicated certain theft crimes, which were felonies until a vote of the people made them misdemeanors, have also increased. Adams told lawmakers there has been a “large rise in a lot of things that used to be felony larcenies that are not felonies anymore, they are misdemeanors, so they don’t necessarily track in this, and some of those numbers are up a lot.”

Officials with the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council said fewer people have been charged with crimes during the COVID-19 shutdown, but indicated that trend is driven in part by more lenient treatment of offenders during the pandemic as much as reduced criminal activity.

Jason Hicks, chair of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, said the guidelines issued by the office of the attorney general, which were created with the input of district attorneys, discourage incarceration during the COVID event.

“Law enforcement has been asked to do what you can to try to keep the jail population as low as you can,” Hicks said, “which means we’re not filing as many charges.”

He said the lockdown may have reduced some crimes and plays a role in the reduced number of cases, but so do efforts to keep jail populations lower.

“We don’t have the proactive policing that we had in the past,” Hicks said.

Yet many local jails remain full as do state prisons, despite both the reduction in people facing charges and commutation of prisoners, officials said.

Scott Crow, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said only one inmate in the state prison system has tested positive for COVID-19. However, to prevent the spread of the virus in the prison system, corrections officials have stopped accepting transfers from county jails, which has had a ripple effect across the state.

“The number of inmates that we have in county jail backup that have been issued judgement sentences is somewhere in the neighborhood of about 850 now,” Crow said. “Typically, prior to COVID, we received about 120 per week, and so now we’re going on, actually, about a month of being under that suspension, and so those numbers continue to increase and as they increase so do the per-diem rates that we’re paying to the counties to house those inmates.”

He said officials will review that policy after April 30 and noted some jails may not be able to handle the overflow for much longer.

“Right now, some are struggling with having the capacity to be able to maintain those numbers,” Crow said.

Senate Appropriations Chair Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, noted there have been news reports saying the prison system has released 400 inmates to deal with COVID issues.

“That is not accurate at all,” Crow said. “As a matter of fact, the release is really not related to COVID. The release is related to commutations that were reviewed and have been in the process for some time.”

He said the number of commutations is also lower than reported with 111 inmates who will begin to be released starting April 16.

Earlier this week, Gov. Kevin Stitt also denied that prison commutations are being issued in response to COVID-19 concerns, saying all commutations must still “go through the normal process, through the Pardon and Parole Board.”

“There’s no difference or change because of COVID-19 in the release, the commutation, the pardons of anybody in Oklahoma,” Stitt said. “Public safety is number one.”

Crow also told lawmakers commutations do not typically reduce prison expenses.

Last November, Oklahoma made national headlines when the state commuted the sentences of more than 500 inmates and released more than 400 in a single day, marking the largest such mass commutation in U.S. history.

However, Crow said that event did nothing to reduce state prison costs, and neither have subsequent commutations, because departing inmates are immediately replaced by incoming inmates.

“There may have been a cost savings if there wasn’t a need to immediately backfill those empty beds,” Crow said. “So, even if you didn’t backfill those beds, if you reduced the population of one housing unit by 10, you still have to maintain the operation of that housing unit the same as you do for the rest of the inmates that are there, if that makes sense. And so, unless you’re reducing or releasing large numbers of inmates and you’re able to close housing units or even facilities, you’re not really realizing that much of a cost savings.”

He told lawmakers the 100-plus inmates released this week are “sprinkled from facilities across the state. So, that’s not a very big number and that’s not going to result in any housing units being closed or any dormitories being closed, and so the savings, it’s very, very insignificant, if at all.”

Attorney General Mike Hunter also warned lawmakers that the state government, and by implication many local governments, will likely face a flurry of lawsuits over COVID-19 closure orders.

“Given all the decisions that have been made, given all of the anticipated lawsuits that are going to occur as the result of businesses being shut down, at least temporarily, furloughs occurring, the difficult decisions that the governor and y’all have made with respect to the exercise of authority in an emergency—not to denigrate my colleagues too much—but it’s a very fertile ground for litigation,” Hunter said. “We’re getting a lot of demand letters that we’re trying to handle in a diplomatic fashion, but our assessment is those demand letters are in the nature of laying groundwork for future litigation.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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