At the outset of this legislative session, it felt as if the political moment for criminal justice reform had finally arrived. Representative Scott Biggs, the former waterboy for the District Attorneys lobbying group, had just resigned. His resignation marked the end of his reign as a House Committee Chair, where he conveniently took the blame for single handedly stopping a host of bills that would have marked important steps on the long road to meaningful reform.
Efforts led by District Attorneys to repeal SQ 780, the sentencing reform measure overwhelmingly passed by the voters in 2016, had stalled in the Senate. In state and out of state reform groups were ready to redouble their efforts to pass not only the Governor’s Task Force bills, but also much more significant criminal justice reform bills. In her State of the State address to a joint session of the Oklahoma legislature in February, Governor Mary Fallin’s mention of criminal justice reform evoked a rare expression of bipartisan agreement, with a sustained and standing ovation from the assembled legislators. All evidence pointed to this, finally, being the session of criminal justice reform. How then is it possible, that as the session comes to a close, we have so little to show for all that promise?
This week, Governor Fallin signed a series of criminal justice reforms in a celebratory photo op. During the same event, Governor Fallin announced that Oklahoma had recently overtaken Louisiana to become the nation’s, and as a result the world’s, leading incarcerator. In a fete of cognitive dissonance, no one at the podium seemed willing to admit that these reforms will do nothing to change this ignoble fact.
Instead, speakers heralded a “slowing of prison growth.” The original versions of these same bills would have actually reduced prison populations. But now we’re expected to settle, for no good reason, for this outcome instead. There’s a big difference between a doctor telling their patient that they have slowed the growth of a tumor and telling their patient that the tumor is actually getting smaller. So too here.
Members of the criminal justice reform community may reasonably feel compelled to make the obligatory, “step in the right direction” comments. Those hoping to be seen as practical reformers capable of making accurate assessments of the political landscape are expected to applaud this “good start” and earnestly call for more reforms soon.
But there is a lack of symmetry with that script and the dangerous urgency of our current criminal justice crisis. Instead, we should be asking the question why, in this moment when lawmakers at both ends of the political spectrum are signaling their willingness to tackle this crisis, when polls show voters support bold reforms, that this is all we get.
More significant reforms, like a bipartisan bill to make SQ 780 retroactive, died without even a hearing in committee. Evidence based sentencing bills that would have limited the DA practice of overcharging simple drug possession as possession with intent to distribute were also stalled. And as noted above, even the Governor’s Task Force bills were watered down in a behind the scenes deal with District Attorneys.
No one has managed to provide a good reason why more wasn't done. There aren’t any good answers for why the task force bills were undermined behind closed doors. The standard script is that they made the bills politically feasible. But that assumes the votes were not there to begin with, which is simply not the case.
The legislature had every opportunity, practically and politically, this session to meaningfully address our mass incarceration crisis. Instead, driven by a lack of political courage and the overbearing influence of the district attorneys, they’ve squandered this opportunity.
Incrementalism is an important fixture in American politics, but incrementalism should be relative to the urgency of the public policy crisis at issue. It is unrealistic to believe that Oklahoma will move entirely away from a backwater criminal justice system overnight. But blaming the lack of progress on a process designed to make sweeping policy changes difficult, ignores the fact that the original versions of the taskforce bills were incremental. The other reforms that died without so much as a hearing were incremental. These bills were the important first steps, but unfortunately, even those proved a leap too far for lawmakers.
With the most promising conditions for reform in recent memory, Legislators caved to demands to weaken the task force bills, and obtained nothing in return. As a result of this secretive compromise, thousands of people, moms and dads, sons and daughters, will enter our prison system. Thousands people will be stripped of their families, their freedom, their humanity.
With prison populations now expected to grow well past 30,000, with our prisons on the verge of collapse, with tens of thousands of Oklahomans whose lives have been destroyed by a broken system, and with fewer dollars available to invest in mental health and substance abuse treatment, we cannot stop now. We’ll be back at the legislature next year, we’ll be on the campaign trail holding candidates for District Attorneys accountable, and, if need be, we’ll be back at the ballot box asking the voters directly to do what their elected officials won’t.