Oklahoma’s Reform Story Continues to Be Written
At the end of 2016, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate in the country, with Oklahomans 65% more likely to be in jail or prison than someone who lived in another state. Recognizing that these high rates of incarceration were not making Oklahoma safer, more just, or more productive, voters and policymakers started to make long overdue changes to the criminal justice system.
On July 1, 2017, SQ 780 and SQ 781 went into effect. SQ 780 reclassified simple drug possession and some low-level property offenses as misdemeanors that can no longer be punished with a prison sentence. SQ 781 required prison savings from SQ 780 to fund county-based mental health and substance use treatment. These important reforms were approved by a majority of Oklahoma voters to reduce penalties and reinvest the savings into community treatment.
Oklahoma’s sentence lengths were far longer than the national average. Because of the Republican-led law changes, people served shorter sentence lengths in Oklahoma without compromising public safety.
Project Commutation was a push by community leaders, advocates, and law students at the University of Tulsa to help people with excessive sentences— sentences that would not be legal under current law or were clearly excessive by any moral standard — seek relief. This campaign led to the successful commutation of sentences for 28 people in December of 2018. Governor Fallin signed the commutations in time for them to return to their communities and families before the holidays. Project Commutation continues to help people facing excessive sentences.
On November 1, 2019, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend the commutation of sentences for hundreds of Oklahomans made eligible for a special commutation docket by HB 1269. This docket was promptly signed by Governor Kevin Stitt, which resulted in the release of 462 Oklahomans (a total of 1,931 years commuted) to be reunited with their families and communities.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increased risk of transmission among incarcerated individuals in prison facilities, Oklahoma halted admissions to its state- and privately-run prison facilities for the second half of March and for all of April and May 2020. For several months thereafter, admissions resumed at a decreased rate.
The DOC population dropped by nearly 900 people in the 15 weeks after the COVID-19 emergency declared.
The improvements that have been made to the criminal justice system in the last five years show that progress is possible. Voters and policymakers have taken the first steps, but more work remains to safely reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate and strengthen its economy, communities, and families.