Oklahoma Passes New Criminal Legislation to Reduce Pressure on Jails

criminal in handcuffsFor more than 10 years, the state of Oklahoma has had one of the highest overall rates of residents ending up in prison.  A significant number of these people were convicted of non-violent crimes.

Oklahoma’s Difficulties with Drug Crime

Since the early nineties, the state has had the largest incarceration rate percentage of all the U.S for female offenders.  It’s overall incarceration rate is nearly 80% higher than the average across all states according to data from 2015.

The state’s prisons also contain a higher per-captia number of African-Americans than any other state in the union.  Furthermore, a significant proportion of this population is either currently suffering from mental illness, or has a history of them.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform finally managed to pass significant reform by taking the matter to the people of the state.  This was addressed in State Questions 780 and 781.  In the most recent November elections both measures passed by fairly comfortable margins.

After their passage the state has seen continued lively debate around the matter.

Here is a quote from a local Oklahom paper.

Mike Boring, district attorney for Beaver, Cimarron, Harper and Texas counties, is among a group of district attorneys concerned about the impact that State Question 780 will have on drug courts.

Boring said because simple drug possession is no longer a felony, prosecutors no longer have a way to motivate people to choose drug court.

“Check the people in drug court right now — people in drug court are not there because they want to be in drug court,” said Boring, who has served as a district attorney for 14 years. “They’re there because it’s the only alternative to going to prison for 10 or 15 years, and they know if they don’t stay in drug court, they’re going to end up going to prison.”

Meanwhile, mental health advocates and proponents of Oklahoma say a lot of questions remain surrounding the proposed drug courts.

Oklahoma law allows for the creation of these misdemeanor drug courts, but the necessary funding to start  the programs has never been approved by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.  Without funding these drug courts will remain a pipe dream.

Mark Levin, policy director at the conservative criminal justice group Right on Crime, said even though drug possession is a misdemeanor, there will be Oklahoman’s who commit various other crimes and other felonies related to their problems with drug addiction.

These people would be perfect candidates for drug court, said Levin, who serves as a member of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Impacts on Criminal Defense

All of these recent changes to the law have given criminal defense attorneys in Oklahoma City new options in terms of strategies for defending their clients.  While not all drug related charges will fall into the domain of 780 and 781, there is hope that the law will have an impact.

There are many other states around the country watching what happens in Oklahoma because of these recently passed laws.  After all, the U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the entire world.  And the amount of money spent by state and Federal agencies to detain, feed, and care for these prisoners is not insignificant.  This is especially true when more and more states are discovering massive shortfalls in their pension funds.