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Where Criminal Justice Legislation Stands Following Key Deadline

Dozens of bills aiming to reshape Oklahoma’s criminal justice system are one step closer to becoming law.

Last Thursday was the deadline for bills to pass out of committee in their chamber of origin. Thousands of bills, including a proposal to lower the Department of Corrections’ minimum hiring age from 20 to 18, didn’t make the cut to be heard in committee hearings.

Other bills narrowly passed through committees and could face opposition in the full House or Senate. Among them is House Bill 3903 by Rep. John Pfieffer, R-Orlando, which passed 6-5 through the House Criminal-Judiciary Committee last Wednesday. The bill would prevent death row prisoners from seeking commutation or presenting an innocence claim to the Pardon and Parole Board. The board would only be able to recommend clemency to death row prisoners for reasons of “mercy or lenience.”

Democratic legislators and justice reform advocates have voiced strong opposition. Many argue the bill is retaliation for Julius Jones’ death sentence being commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

Pfeiffer, who is running the bill at the request of the attorney general’s office, contends that the Pardon and Parole Board is not equipped to review innocence claims and prisoners should instead seek relief through the appellate courts.

State prisoners who were convicted at trial are entitled to a post-conviction appeal, but the process is arduous and a compelling innocence claim is no guarantee that a conviction will be overturned. I took a deep dive into post-conviction appeals in September, examining why some legal experts believe Oklahoma needs a statewide Conviction Integrity Unit.

I’ll be watching to see how Republican supporters of death row prisoner Richard Glossip respond to House Bill 3903. Rep. Kevin McDugle, one of Glossip’s most outspoken advocates, is sponsoring legislation that would create a Conviction Integrity Unit under the Pardon and Parole Board to review certain death penalty cases.

What criminal justice bills do you hope the legislature passes? What issues are most important to you? DM me on Twitter or email [email protected]

Here are five other criminal justice bills I’ll be tracking:

  • House Bill 3316 (Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond): Authorizes the automatic sealing of records under certain circumstances. This week I looked into the possibility of Oklahoma passing expungement reform legislation and what it would mean for people with aging criminal convictions.
  • Senate Bill 1537 (Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore): Authorizes the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training to suspend certification of a peace officer if it finds that they have been suspended or terminated for cause by a law enforcement employer.
  • Senate Bill 1532 (Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville): Directs courts to waive all fines, fees, and court costs if an individual has complied with the terms of their probation or supervised release and made timely installment payments for at least consecutive 24 months.
  • Senate Bill 1612 (Sen. Kim David, R-Porter): Consolidates the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Division, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control under the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.
  • Senate Bill 1646 (Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa): Classifies each criminal felony offense in statute into a classification system and caps maximum allowable fines for each offense.

What I’m Reading

  • When It Comes to Reporting Deaths of Incarcerated People, Most States Break the Law: Researchers at the University of North Carolina found many state prison systems do not adequately report in-custody deaths to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The lack of data hinders public health efforts to respond. [The Appeal]
  • Court Fees Can Criminalize Poverty, Major Study Finds: A study published in the American Sociological Review last month found court fines and fees often criminalize poverty. In Oklahoma County, researchers found that a misdemeanor conviction typically generates more than $1,000 in court-related fees. [Reuters]
  • Oklahoma Used Wrong Drug Labels During Recent Executions: Despite the improper labels, corrections department officials testified during a federal trial last week that they are confident the correct drugs were used in every execution. [Associated Press]
  • Debate Brews on Whether Law Enforcement Unification Would Improve or Politicize Corruption Cases: A controversial bill to merge the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics with the state Department of Public Safety narrowly passed out of a Senate committee last week. Under the proposal, a Public Integrity Division would be formed to investigate cases of corruption involving law enforcement and elected officials, but some lawmakers worry that the 11-member body would itself be subject to outside influence. [NonDoc]
  • New Dark Money Group Critical of Gov. Kevin Stitt has $10 Million to Spend: The Sooner State Leadership Fund is spending millions in an attempt to portray Gov. Kevin Stitt as soft on crime. [The Oklahoman]

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From the impact of COVID-19 behind bars to the effects of prison gerrymandering, my reporting focuses on how Oklahoma’s criminal justice system impacts people inside and outside of the system. It can take weeks or months for me to file public records requests, dig into documents and track down sources. As a nonprofit news organization, we rely on your financial support to do this time-consuming but important work. Help us make a difference.

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