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.”
Steele said the bill is expected to save the state Corrections Department at least $5 million a year. But those savings would occur over time as more nonviolent offenders are sentenced to community service or are monitored with electronic devices. Both methods are far less expensive than keeping inmates in prison.
Fallin said the community sentencing options, in addition to saving tax dollars, will help nonviolent offenders, many of whom have substance abuse problems, to receive treatment and safely get back into their communities.
“A child with a parent in prison is five times more likely to end up in the correctional system,” she said. “We can do something about that. Many of our children who have a parent who's in a correctional facility will grow up to live in poverty.”
Corrections Department Director Justin Jones said the measure is a “great opportunity to apply
HB 2131 originally had a section that would have reduced the prison stay for many inmates, but it was taken out by the Senate. It would have changed the default sentencing structure from consecutive terms to concurrent terms in cases where a person is convicted of two or more crimes at trial. Instead of automatically having offenders serve one sentence and then serve the next one, they would have served the sentences at the same time unless the judge said otherwise.