OKLAHOMA CITY--Blame for the Oklahoma House’s shameful last-minute scuttling of monumental criminal justice reform measures with overwhelming bipartisan support falls squarely on House leadership. Despite having a clear mandate from voters to reverse the unsustainable and destructive course of Oklahoma’s overly harsh, discriminatory, and counterproductive criminal justice system, House leaders tucked tail and capitulated to out of touch, taxpayer subsidized lobbying groups.
While the public face of this cowardly act of obstructionism has been Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, a deeper scorn should be directed at House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. Speaker McCall may have for the time being escaped blame for this embarrassment, but history will hold him accountable. Only the weakest of Speakers would pretend that obstinate committee chairs like Biggs are beyond their control. There is only one member of the House of Representatives who has the power to keep the entire body from casting an up or down vote on any bill and that is the Speaker of the House.
“This is a transformative moment for criminal justice reform and legislators had an opportunity to seize that momentum and be leaders in ending the suffering Oklahomans are enduring daily in a state criminal justice system that has reached crisis-level status,” said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director at the ACLU of Oklahoma. “But instead of leading, they capitulated to a small group of politicians whose political and financial interests are married to the broken status quo. By killing this widely-supported plan, Speaker McCall subverted the will of the voters, ignored his own membership and disrespected an overwhelming coalition of supporters who came together to demand action before it is too late. Speaker McCall should be as ashamed of himself as many Oklahomans – including his own colleagues – are of him.”
A package of bills recommended by the Governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Task Force advanced through the Legislature with strong support early in session. Governor Fallin herself played a consistent leadership role through this whole session. By recognizing the need for immediate reforms, proposing thoughtful, evidence based solutions to our crisis, and using her political capital to push a smart justice agenda, the Governor has proven her commitment to this worthy cause. In another catastrophic budget year, the bills presented a chance to save nearly $2 billion in ineffective corrections spending by reforming Oklahoma’s justice system to resemble the more humane, cost-effective systems other states and countries have adopted with proven success.
Despite overwhelming support for these evidence based reforms, in the final month of session, McCall and Biggs tried to quietly sweep those bills under the rug. When it blew up in their faces the last week of session, they doubled down and killed the bills.
“It appears the supposed support for reform House leadership expressed this session was a lie all along. It is not hard to conclude that Speaker McCall planned the demise of this proposal months ago, but strung it along under false pretenses as a negotiation chip to extract what he wanted from the Senate and Governor Fallin this session, all the while cultivating a public image of someone committed to reforms. It was politics at its worst, and voters should not forget it,” Kiesel said. “These antics combined with the shell game that was played with teacher pay raises this session offer hard evidence that the majority in the House of Representatives are working to actively deceive the people of Oklahoma by hiding what they're actually up to.”
How it happened
- In December, in one of his first acts as speaker, McCall made the shocking decision to appoint Biggs – the Legislature’s leading propagandist opponent of reform – as chairman of the Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee.
- In January, McCall displayed astonishing incompetence on the topic of criminal justice when he told a chamber legislative breakfast that Oklahoma should be proud of its high incarceration rates because it shows the state takes public safety seriously, eliciting groans in the audience.
- In her State of the State Address, Governor Fallin expressed strong support for the Task Force bills, a stance she defended throughout the session.
- In February, McCall did nothing as Biggs pushed forward House Bill 1482, a piece of divisive, insulting, unnecessary legislation that subverted the will of the people by rolling back State Question 780, which had just been approved by Oklahoma voters in November and reclassified simple drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
- In March, despite widespread public outrage, McCall granted a floor hearing to House Bill 1482, which passed by one vote. McCall voted yes. When the Senate quickly denied House Bill 1482 a hearing, Biggs reportedly vowed to exact revenge on reform supporters by scuttling the task force bills. Again, he found an ally in McCall, who assigned several Senate bills containing the task force recommendations to the committee chaired by Biggs instead of the Public Safety Committee chaired by a reform supporter.
- In April, McCall stood idly by as Biggs spread blatant misinformation about the bills to justify gutting them in committee and sending them to the Legislature’s secretive conference committee process.
- In May, when a Republican Representative formally asked House leadership to move the bills to his committee for a fair hearing, McCall denied the request and allowed Biggs to retain jurisdiction. Supporters were repeatedly assured by House leadership that the bills would advance past Biggs to the House floor, but Biggs was instead permitted to abuse legislative procedures by delaying hearings, setting and canceling a series of meetings on little to no notice, and filibustering a meeting to prevent the bills from being heard.
- In the final week of session, immense pressure from dozens of supportive organizations was brought to bear – including some of the harshest criticism Gov. Mary Fallin has ever leveled against fellow Republicans – calling upon Biggs and McCall to urge them to listen to the mandate voters had given them and grant the bills a floor hearing. McCall never intervened, and Biggs used another procedural stunt the day before adjournment to kill the bills for the year.
“We are saddened by the delay, but we are encouraged that reason will prevail eventually. Our allies span political parties, and reach to the highest ranks of Oklahoma's private and public sectors. Together, we will regroup, we will continue to insist on necessary reforms, and we will prevail,” said Kiesel. “The people of Oklahoma are desperate and their calls cannot and will not go unanswered.”
The full package of ten criminal justice reform bills received support from a wide, bipartisan coalition. While many have died in committee, the bills are all still eligible to be heard again in the 2018 Legislative Session. With more support than ever before, coalition members remain confident that they can bring meaningful criminal justice reform to Oklahoma, regardless of this session’s reprehensible obstructionism.