State dollars will soon begin flowing to counties to support diversion and drug treatment programs, but an ongoing effort to update the state’s criminal sentencing code lost momentum in the final weeks of session.

Here’s a look at how state lawmakers approached criminal justice issues during the 2023 legislative session, which concluded Friday:

The Big Impact: Nearly seven years after voters approved criminal justice reforms in State Questions 780 and 781, lawmakers have settled on a method to calculate the savings accrued from incarcerating fewer people and distribute the money among counties.

Capitol Watch 2023

Keaton Ross reviews the Legislature's action and inaction during the session that concluded Friday and its effects on:

Senate Bill 844 requires the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) to calculate the annual savings attributed to the passage of State Question 780. Once that number is finalized, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is tasked with overseeing those funds and sending requests for proposals to county governments. County officials may seek funds to develop substance abuse treatment, employment, diversion or housing programs.

State Question 780, which reclassified several drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, has helped the state reduce its prison population by nearly 20% over the past five years. But some county jail administrators say the change has increased demand in their facilities for mental health care and substance abuse services.

The related State Question 781 was supposed to direct savings in incarcerating fewer people to counties, but the Legislature has yet to fund services in the manner outlined in the voter-approved initiative.

Bill sponsor Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, said earlier this year that LOFT has proven itself capable of making complex calculations and the measure should soon have an impact.

“Senate Bill 844 honors the will of the people who voted for these changes and the intent of the law, but most importantly, it will help change lives for the better throughout Oklahoma,” Thompson said.

In their budget deal sent to the governor this week, lawmakers allocated $12.5 million toward the Community Safety Investment Fund.

Also Notable: Prosecutors will soon be able to seek stiffer penalties for certain repeat drug possession offenses.

Under House Bill 2153, defendants convicted of a fourth drug possession offense within a 10-year period may receive a prison sentence between 1-5 years. The bill, which does not apply to marijuana-related offenses, notes that the felony may be reduced to a misdemeanor if the defendant completes a court-ordered diversion program.

“Numerous municipalities in Oklahoma want this bill so they can help curb the problems they have with drug abuse,” bill sponsor Ross Ford, R-Tulsa, said in House debate on May 16. Ford, a former police officer, said the state’s repeat DUI laws are modeled similarly.

Stitt signed the measure, which takes effect Nov. 1, into law earlier this week. Criminal justice reform advocates and some lawmakers argue that the bill rolls back parts of State Question 780 and goes against the will of voters. Thirty-five representatives, including more than a dozen Republicans, voted against the measure.

“They’re falling back into their old habits of demonizing people and punishing them,” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa. “That’s a big government solution to a problem that affects Oklahoma families. It’s a bad direction to go in.”

Left Behind: For the second consecutive year, a sweeping measure implementing a felony classification system failed to reach the governor’s desk.

Proponents of the effort say Oklahoma’s criminal code is outdated with overly broad sentencing ranges, causing punishments to vary widely across different counties. For instance, someone convicted of a second offense of second-degree burglary can be sentenced anywhere from two years to life in prison.

But overhauling the system while appeasing numerous stakeholders, from judges to prosecutors to criminal justice reform advocates, proved once again to be too tall of a task.

Keaton Ross covers democracy and criminal justice for Epic Text Books. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.


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