While many criminal justice reforms have been sold as a way to lower crime rates and taxpayer costs, lawmakers were told the reform process currently requires additional spending on treatment programs even as its unintended consequences are reducing the incentive for offenders to seek drug treatment and fueling a rise in homelessness.
“I believe all the district attorneys would stand here and tell you we support alternative court programs,” said Jason Hicks, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association. “We’re the ones that administer them. Your drugs courts, your mental health courts, veterans’ courts, and any other type of diversionary program that we can come up with to keep people out of prison, I think is worth the effort, especially when you’re talking about children and families.”
But those programs are non-existent across much of Oklahoma, he said.
“It takes money to fund those programs,” Hicks said.
Hicks, who serves as district attorney for Caddo, Grady, Stephens, and Jefferson counties, made his comments during a study focused on the children of incarcerated parents. Hicks told members of the House Judiciary Committee many offenders need treatment they cannot receive today, and that prosecutors now have fewer tools to encourage drug offenders to seek treatment through drug courts or similar programs that Hicks said have literally saved lives.
Hicks noted there is no drug court in Jefferson County, so individuals from that county must drive to Stephens County to get treatment, which creates financial barriers for participation.
“We have to recognize that those services are not there,” Hicks said. “The rural parts of the state are really suffering.”
While services are limited, he said the need for them is growing.
“What we’re seeing is that drugs are becoming more readily available in all of our communities,” Hicks said.
He noted the cost of one ounce of methamphetamine was $1,500 a decade ago. Today, that ounce costs $300 to $400.
“That tells you one of two things have happened, either (a) we have meth and nobody wants it, which that is absolutely not the problem, or (b) there’s so much of it that it has driven the price down,” Hicks said. “And that’s really what’s going on. And that’s going on in communities all across Oklahoma.”
Due in part to criminal-justice measures adopted in recent years, Hicks told lawmakers the penalty for many drug and property crimes has fallen so low that offenders no longer fear incarceration, and therefore won’t agree to alternative sentencing.
Voter approval of State Question 780 eliminated felony charges for many drug-possession crimes and also waived felony charges for those caught stealing up to $1,000 in property (compared to $500 under prior law). Under the state question, those crimes became misdemeanors.
Lawmakers were told offenders sentenced to years in a Department of Corrections prison now face only a few months behind bars.
Rep. Rande Worthen, a Lawton Republican who spent 29 years as a prosecutor before running for office in 2016, noted the actual penalty for nonviolent crimes was relatively low when he ended his law enforcement career. At the time, Worthen said, an individual sentenced to five years or less was “doing about 90, 120 days in the DOC” and then was “kicked out” onto probation or parole.
“What’s going on now?” he asked.
“It’s shorter than that,” replied Justin Farris, chief of operations for the Department of Corrections.
Worthen said those who were sentenced to seven years or more for non-violent offenses typically served just 25 percent to 30 percent of that sentence before being released on parole.
Farris called that “a fair number,” and said a person sentenced to seven years or more for a nonviolent crime can “realistically go to community corrections for less than a year and be out on GPS shortly after or go straight to GPS.”
Hicks offered similar figures.
“A five-year sentence or even up to a 10-year sentence, those folks are serving a very, very small amount of time in DOC on a nonviolent crime. In fact, you’re going to serve roughly 90 days on a 10-year-or-less nonviolent crime and, if you haven’t done anything else, you’re getting an ankle bracelet and getting sent back home.”
—Jason Hicks, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association
“A five-year sentence or even up to a 10-year sentence, those folks are serving a very, very small amount of time in DOC on a nonviolent crime,” Hicks said. “In fact, you’re going to serve roughly 90 days on a 10-year-or-less nonviolent crime and, if you haven’t done anything else, you’re getting an ankle bracelet and getting sent back home.”
As a result, people have refused to participate in drug courts because those programs involve a greater commitment than what will be required if someone is sentenced under normal guidelines, Hicks said. When offered drug court, he said many defendants respond: “Why would I want to do that?”
“We don’t have the felony to charge them with,” Hicks said, “which makes it very difficult.”
He also warned that Oklahoma’s relatively lenient sentencing laws are now attracting homeless people to the state. In Durant, Hicks said the local district attorney reports the homeless population is “exploding.” Local officials have interviewed those homeless individuals to learn what’s driving the increase in that population.
“The comments that they’re getting back is, ‘We’re moving into Oklahoma because we know that we’re not going to get into any trouble and we can do our drugs and do it all day long and there’s no consequences for that issue,’” Hicks said.
While criminal-justice reforms are often focused on nonviolent criminals with low-level drug charges, Worthen said that group accounts for a relatively small share of the prison population today.
“The ones who we’re really keeping are the ones that are violent offenses and the ones that are sex crimes, 85-percent crimes, things like that,” Worthen said. “The rest of them are actually getting out on probation, parole, released on some type of supervision, rather quickly.”