ACLU of Oklahoma: The Legislature Has Failed to Live Up to Its Criminal Justice Reform Potential in 2020

Affiliate: ACLU of Oklahoma
February 25, 2020 3:00 pm

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OKLAHOMA CITY – After a historic legislative-led initiative to provide commutation relief for people sentenced with charges later made misdemeanors under state question 780, the 2020 legislative session has been a record disappointment in terms of making criminal justice reform a priority. While there are a number of best-practice reform bills eligible to be heard from the last session and a number of bills addressing fines and fees from the desks of legislative champions, most of what we’ve seen move this session are tough on crime era priorities that use emotional issues to increase sentence lengths, add to the violent crimes list and add to the list for which failed mandatory minimums are eligible to be used. If our leaders really believe in reform, they’ll accept the fact that our focus on punishment and incarceration throws taxpayer dollars down the drain, with no effect on the cycle of incarceration and no benefit to the survivors of crime. If we as a state are really going to move out of the top spots for incarceration rate, it means accepting that and moving forward with structural changes, grounded in data.

“In an election year, many of the legislators who are falling short on their promises to change the system are going to tout their records on criminal justice reform, but we’re here today because we urgently need them to do more. This is a non-partisan issue with popular public support, but often without the legislative bravery to match. We continue to see discussions in this building focused on crimes and compromises, not about the people, the constituents, and our families, who cannot wait for session after session on the promise of reform. I am here today because it’s not enough to go back and forth with Louisiana over who incarcerates the most people, it’s time to enact bold change that is going to start to fix years of broken policy and acknowledge that we have a lot of healing yet to do,” says Reginald Hines, President of National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice Oklahoma Chapter.

Last year’s bipartisan passage of HB 1269 that provided for commutations was a critical step in meeting the enthusiasm from the voters, but it was almost an afterthought in session, being the last bill out of the Senate before Sine Die. There were so many more solution-oriented policy proposals left on the table. And as we approach the first committee deadline this week, we haven’t seen either chamber embrace the opportunities to provide relief to people who continue to suffer as a result of well-intentioned but poorly enacted laws. Our continued focus on punishment and not people is setting us up to continue to see our prison population grow, at the expense of Oklahoma children, and to the detriment of communities of color, people with disabilities, and people with substance use disorders and mental health conditions.

“We’ve joined partners in pointing out the clearly unconstitutional nature of our state’s pre-trial system in the courts. While the ACLU of Oklahoma filed litigation in Canadian County, any of the 77 counties could have seen claims brought against them,” said Megan Lambert, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Oklahoma. “We know the front-end problems folks face by a system that fails to meet the standards of the constitution creates real and lasting harm and poor long-term outcomes, not only for those directly failed by a wealth-based detention system but for all of us who strive for something closer to justice. Money bail is supposed to be used as a mechanism to secure reappearance in court, but the fear-mongering we heard in this building last year points out how often it’s used as detention. In the status quo system, we’re not focusing on security, but rather on whether someone can buy their way out. For the same crime, those who can afford to pay bail can buy their freedom, while those who can’t afford it are stuck in jail and risk losing their jobs, housing, and even custody of their children, all while they are presumed innocent by the state.”

“Most of the criminal legal bills that have made their way onto committee agendas this session focus on where we can expand sentence lengths, how we can further punish people, and where we can double down on our use of ineffective mandatory minimums,” said Nicole McAfee, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the ACLU of Oklahoma. “All of these conversations hang on the idea we’re helping folks subjected to harm, but really what we’re proposing uses those survivors as political pawns, furthering ineffective and expensive tools of vengeance, without any investment in disrupting behavior, healing trauma, providing rehabilitation, or delivering on public safety. There are bipartisan solutions eligible to move forward on both chamber floors that the legislature could make their priority starting today. Until then, we continue to set the most vulnerable people in our communities up for failure, harm, and recidivism. We’re calling on legislators this session can show they care for fellow Oklahomans not by claiming they support reform in a mail piece, but rather with their votes and their voices in advancing reform priorities sooner, rather than later this session.”

Throughout the afternoon of Tuesday, February 25th, smart justice supporters will be talking with our legislators about the importance of reform, what that should look like, and how they can prioritize meaningful criminal justice reform this session as part of the ACLU of Oklahoma’s annual Smart Justice Day at the Capitol.

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