Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law Wednesday what she called a landmark corrections bill that will significantly change how the state deals with nonviolent offenders and relieve prison overcrowding.
House Speaker Kris Steele, the author of House Bill 2131, said the measure is a start and he hopes to look at sentencing guidelines next year.
“This is only the first step in the work that we have left to do as a state,” said Steele, R-Shawnee.
HB 2131 expands both the use of community sentencing programs and the electronic monitoring of low-risk, nonviolent inmates. It also limits the governor's role in the parole process for nonviolent offenders and requires state Pardon and Parole Board members to meet minimum qualifications. The measure takes effect Nov. 1.
It's the first significant piece of legislation favoring alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders. Legislators over the years have passed “tough on crime” measures that have increased penalties and prison sentences, a key reason why Oklahoma's incarceration rate routinely ranks in the top five nationally.
More than half the state's nearly 26,000 inmates are in prison for nonviolent offenses. The system is now at 96 percent capacity, but because of budget shortfalls, is staffed at 69 percent of authorized levels, according to the speaker's office.
“It's very difficult for us to continue on the road that we're on, both from a financial standpoint and from a human resource standpoint,” Steele said. “What we want to be able to do is develop these community-based alternative sanctions, appropriate sanctions for low-risk, nonviolent offenders so that we can provide the skills that are necessary so that these individuals can be productive citizens.”