A former inmate freed as the result of a federal corrections-reform law championed by President Donald Trump urged state lawmakers to follow the president’s lead and enact similar reforms in Oklahoma.
“It is my goal, it is my hope, that because President Trump has actually stepped out and shown that criminal justice reform is necessary, that this state will also change its history,” said Matthew Charles, a former inmate who is now a justice fellow at Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
In 1995, Charles was given a 35-year sentence after being arrested for selling crack cocaine in Tennessee. He served more than 21 years before being released in 2016, but was then ordered to return to prison because a court ruled he had been released in error. Charles would have served out the remaining 10 years of his term had it not been for Trump signing the federal “First Step Act,” which made retroactive sentencing revisions passed since Charles’ 1995 conviction that had reduced the penalty for his crime.
Charles spoke at a press conference hosted by Americans for Prosperity-Oklahoma and joined by representatives of several conservative organizations that favor corrections reform.
“There’s no doubt that the Sooner State can replicate the success of states around it,” said Amy Anderson, senior director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Civil Justice Task Force. “A criminal justice system that is more fair and just better instills the principles of dignity and trust in all Americans.”
Trent England, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (parent organization of the Center for Independent Journalism), noted that criminal-justice reform is the product of a “left-right coalition that’s been going on for a long time.”
“Oklahomans are ready for criminal-justice reform,” England said. “Oklahomans want to reduce our reliance on putting people in prisons and putting people in jails and actually look for other alternatives to get people back to work, get people back integrated into our communities. We’ve seen successes in other states where they can reduce incarceration and at the same time keep crime low.”
The press conference came less than a day after Gov. Kevin Stitt announced his support for several reforms, such as eliminating the direct reliance of district attorneys and courts on revenue generated through fines and fees. Stitt called for fine-and-fee revenue to instead be deposited into the state’s general revenue fund and for DAs and courts to receive an appropriation to replace the lost funding.
Stitt also endorsed spending $10 million on diversion and mental health treatment, allowing Oklahomans with a nonviolent felony conviction to be licensed in occupations unrelated to their offense, creating an expedited commutation process for offenders currently incarcerated on drug possession crimes that are now misdemeanors due to recent voter-approved changes, and reforming the parole process.
Charles has met with legislators in both chambers and was scheduled to meet with Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday. He said those meetings have been positive.
“The leaders of this state acknowledge that there needs to be a change,” Charles said.
He said lawmakers need to not only pass reform measures, but pay the expense of alternative sentencing and treatment programs needed to keep many people out of prison.
“We want things to take place in reality instead of theory,” Charles said. “And if you defund something, even though it’s been passed, or you hold back the cost of whatever it takes to get that ball rolling, you’ve really defeated the purpose.”