Corrections-reform advocates began the 2019 session with high expectations, unveiling 14 proposals supporters said would reduce Oklahoma’s prison population. But by the end of the session, just a handful of those measures became law.
Officials are hopeful the 15-member Criminal Justice Reentry, Supervision, Treatment and Opportunity Reform (RESTORE) Task Force, created by Governor Kevin Stitt via an executive order, will have more success. That hope is tied to the broad range of groups included in the process and an emphasis on compromise.
“The only way we’re going to move the needle here for recommendations out of the body of this report is to find common, middle ground that is good policy,” said Chip Keating, Stitt’s secretary of public safety and chair of the RESTORE Task Force.
Some proposed reforms ran aground this year when prosecutors, district attorneys, and other law enforcement officials weighed in. The RESTORE Task Force includes representatives of those groups and also accounts for a wide range of other interests ranging from public defenders to victims’ advocates to state agencies.
Jari Askins, who serves as administrative director of the courts, said there’s a need to have representatives of state agencies and law-enforcement groups when criminal justice reform proposals are discussed, because people outside those systems may not realize the ripple effects reform can create for procedures and processes.
“If we’re going to change the way we do some things, then there are more things that need to be changed than just the length of punishments,” said Askins, who has worked in Oklahoma’s parole system and court system and served as a state representative and lieutenant governor.
Another task force member, Cleveland County Sheriff Todd Gibson, also stressed that reform proposals need to do more than alter penalties.
“Restructuring drug and property related crimes without funding drug and alcohol treatment options and drug court creates a whole new set of problems,” he said. “It is a delicate balance to maintain quality of life and the rule of law in society, while also shifting our paradigm on certain criminal issues.”
Gibson said the rate of homelessness, domestic violence, and misdemeanor crime in Oklahoma is on the rise among those with addiction issues.
“If those underlying causes go unaddressed, we’ve simply shifted the population from prison to jails or worse, to living on the streets, continuing to victimize others while themselves living in deplorable conditions and suffering,” Gibson said.
Robert Ravitz, public defender of Oklahoma County, will be among the task force members who can advocate for citizens who go through the system as defendants.
“The task force is going to look at a whole host of issues,” Ravitz said. “Obviously, I’ve been very outspoken about fines, fees and costs, and I’m hopeful the task force will look at that. For me, that’s probably the most important issue. And the reason why it’s so important—and I’ve said this for years—is because I believe that a lot of people violate the terms of their probation or don’t complete their probation because of huge monetary costs.”
Gibson said the challenge facing the task force is how to reduce incarceration while also ensuring that people are rehabilitated.
“Without the ’stick’ of prison time, we will need to find another way to encourage people to take advantage of drug court and mental health court and other services that can help them break the cycle of crime,” Gibson said. “Many of these repeat offenders live miserable, desperate lives. They are suffering and they are stuck, and simply ignoring them as they continue to victimize themselves and others is not the compassionate approach. Funding diversion courts and mental health and substance abuse services will be key, and research indicates the cost of investing in treatment is lower in both the short- and long-term than simply incarcerating people for these types of crimes.”
Keating said the full task force, which met for the first time last week, may meet just four more times before the end of the calendar year. On the other hand, six subcommittees formed last week will meet regularly. Those subcommittees include members of the task force but will also receive input from citizens across the state.
The six subcommittees include the following:
- A “pipeline” subcommittee that Keating said will examine “factors that result in incarceration,” including family issues, child welfare, juvenile justice, education, poverty, mental illness, and social issues;
- A “front end” subcommittee that will examine bail, bond, addiction, mental-health treatment, diversion programs, metrics and accountability, intermediate sanctions, and alternatives to incarceration;
- A sentencing subcommittee that will review “85 percent” crimes where early release is not allowed, habitual offenders, creating classes of crimes, and ongoing review of sentencing changes and their resulting impact. The office of the attorney general will lead that subcommittee’s work;
- A “back end” subcommittee that will examine re-entry policies, pardon and parole, commutations, supervision programs, and occupational licensing reform;
- A “rural subcommittee” that will examine access to drug/mental health/veterans’ courts outside Oklahoma’s major metropolitan areas, judicial structure, and access to qualified attorneys in rural areas; and
- A “data and research” subcommittee that will examine how the state can improve oversight of offenders and targeting of crime. Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler will be a leader in those efforts.
“A lot of times data can identify where a problem is going to occur and how do we address the problems before they occur,” Keating said.
That last subcommittee will also consider what Keating said has been a longstanding problem.
“One big thing that the state has needed to completely overhaul and redo is our offender-management system,” Keating said.
Those involved with the RESTORE Task Force predict the process of developing recommendations, which the group is expected to submit by December 6, will involve much give-and-take.
“Those people who can’t live with compromise might be disappointed,” Ravitz said. “But to get anything done and move forward—like I’m confident anybody on the task force and the governor wants to do—I think it’s going to require compromise.”