2021 already seems to be a year full of more unprecedented experiences. Like the session before it, the Oklahoma legislature will face many obstacles to overcome to keep the public safe, in both their work environment and in the policy they review. As legislators are reading through proposals from their colleagues, they’ll face the inevitable decision of what to prioritize to best meet the needs of the public. We’d love them to envision bold policies that protect and expand the rights and liberties of all Oklahomans. Like before, we’re working with partners from across the state and across the aisle on bold reforms to the criminal legal system that tackle Oklahoma’s record-setting carceral rates, and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, especially Black and Indigenous Oklahomans, due to systemic racism.
But, we’re aware that this session may again be cut short, that the budget poses a need for even more creative thinking, and that the body may not be ready to engage in actions that are bold or courageous in the face of so much turmoil and change. And so we thought we’d outline the bare minimum. This session, we’re asking the legislature to stick to one principle: no new fines, no new crimes. In 2017, there were 682 different felony charges on the books in Oklahoma. Even as the legislature has passed reform measures in the years since, it has always added new felonies and increased punishments in statute. Oklahoma’s system of fines and fees has created a reality where people often face life-long debt and repercussions from even a single interaction with the criminal legal system. The increased number of lengthy sentence ranges, repeat sentence penalties, and high fines have done nothing to deter criminalized behavior nor have they encouraged conditions that keep people out of the criminal legal system. Rather, they are often the very conditions which trap people in a revolving door of incarceration and debt.
So, in 2021, we’re asking the Oklahoma legislature not to make things worse. Everyone understands that Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis is unsustainable. As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on prisons, jails, and the communities that house them, as the current financial situation means more people are behind on fines and fees payments, are newly unhoused or unemployed, there is no better time to address the urgent problems posed by Oklahoma’s criminal legal system. But while opponents to reform say too much is happening too fast with regard to reform, we’re asking that at least the legislature refrain from making the problems worse. This year we’ll fight legislation that creates new felonies or expands on the sentences of current felonies, along with opposition to legislation that relies on new fines as opposed to mechanisms which may deter or actually address the behavior of concern.
Legislators, we know you have a lot on your plates going into the start of February session, and we’ve made it as simple as possible--no new fines, no new crimes in 2021.