State Representative hopes to change corrections system and update SQ780

October 18, 2021 | Headlines

OKLAHOMA CITY – Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, plans to draft legislation for next year that would completely change Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. He said his move to a community-based treatment model would better hold repeat offenders accountable for their actions while getting more appropriate help to those dealing with substance abuse and addiction or mental health issues.

Humphrey detailed his plan in an interim study he held Friday before the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, which he chairs.

“Since I’ve been in the Legislature, I’ve seen a lot of talk and very little action on true criminal justice reform,” Humphrey said. “My idea is to get everybody to the table to fix this problem. While we may not agree on everything, I believe we can do a better job for the public, for the offender and for law enforcement and our courts.”

Humphrey’s plan relies on changing supervision of those released from the criminal justice system to a judicial district board made up of a judge, a district attorney, a county commissioner, a sheriff, a defense attorney and a private citizen. The board would be accountable to the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and would receive funding from the agency divisions they replace.

Currently, supervision is handled by district attorneys who collect fees from those they supervise and use the money to fund their offices, a conflict of interest, Humphrey said. Instead, he’d like to see DA’s funded through state appropriations. DOC also supervises, but again with poor funding, inefficiency and large caseloads, the end result is poor, he said. Private supervision has the plus side that the supervisor only gets paid of the person they oversee is successful, but with no set standard, results vary across the state.

Humphrey’s community corrections model would be responsible for all supervision programs including probation, drug court, community incarceration, community treatment and deferred prosecution. It would combine probation, community sentencing and drug testing using progressive discipline and real sanctions that increase if offenders do not comply with early efforts.

Humphrey said he also wants to see changes to the fines and fees criminals are asked to pay, which becomes such crippling debt few can get out from under it once they are released from custody.

“Oklahoma must stop funding the state government on the back of offenders,” Humphrey said. “Fines, fees and costs should be used to fund the criminal justice system.”

He also said the system must be one that seeks to change criminal behavior and stop substance abuse.

Humphrey started his study on Friday with a discussion about State Question 780, approved by state voters in 2016. The question changed sentencing on low-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors in an attempt to lower the state’s incarceration rate and get those who need addiction or mental health treatment the help they need.

Humphrey said while most of the presenters he asked to speak at Friday’s study agreed with the idea behind SQ780, few think it’s working as intended.

First to speak at Friday’s study was Todd Gibson, chief of police for the City of Moore. Gipson said in its most pragmatic form, SQ780 was an attempt to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on the higher cost of incarceration and stop saddling the so-called low-level offenders with unmanageable debt of court costs and fees. The effects of the law change, however, has just shifted the burden from the state to the county, he said, and given drug offenders and thieves less incentive to reform.

“When we take away the consequence, the ability to hold them in forced treatment or give them an ultimatum of treatment or jail, we are not helping them, we are actually harming them,” he said.

Former Speaker of the House Kris Steele, who now serves as chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, spoke later in the meeting saying SQ780 is working exactly as it was intended.

Steele said incarceration rates are lower, arrests are down and dollars have been saved. But he faulted the Legislature for not appropriating the money to counties as specified under State Question 781, which was passed at the same time as SQ780. SQ781 was to take the savings from lower incarceration rates and send that money to counties to be spent on treatment options for those with addiction or mental health needs.

Steele also took issue with the way the state handles drug addiction.

“Addiction is a disease,” he said. “It’s a health issue. That’s the paradigm shift. Up until 2016, we put people in prison and we punished people who battle addiction and untreated mental illness.”

With SQ780, Steele said Oklahomans were saying those who battle addiction or who have mental illness should be treated as patients not as prisoners. And that should not change no matter how sick the person gets or how many times they might need treatment.

Texas County District Judge Jon Parsley said his area of the state – the Oklahoma panhandle – has zero drug treatment centers or mental health services, so he cannot refer anyone for those services. He said he’s also received zero dollars from the state since the passage of SQ781.

Julia Curry, owner of Oklahoma Court Services, provides supervision services for released offenders in nine counties. She said she saw astounding results through extra accountability and access to treatment through drug courts prior to SQ780’s passage. Once many drug charges dropped to a misdemeanor level though, she can’t keep people in a drug treatment program.

“The problem is we don’t have much a carrot, and we don’t have much of a stick,” she said. Instead, people go AWOL from her program and they just rack up more fees and fines as they get arrested then released then arrested and released again.

Cleveland County District Judge Lori Walkley agreed the incentive for treatment has crashed.

“We’ve got great judges and great treatment providers and not enough folks willing to plead into it,” she said.

Misdemeanor recovery court was the answer to that, she said, but there are only six participants in the system right now despite the fact that Cleveland County is the third largest county in the state with the highest caseload per judge in the state. She also agreed with Gibson that SQ780 has only pushed the issue to the local level.

“I don’t mind that,” she said. In fact, she advocates that the best governance is at the local and not the state level. But, she said the counties have to have the structure and the funding to make this work for them.

Damion Shade with the Oklahoma Policy Institute also shared during Friday’s study.

He said Oklahoma has a mental health crisis that we’ve converted into an incarceration crisis, and current funding only allows us to care for about one-third of those in need. He wants to see the state turn from a focus on incarceration to re-entry and supervision.

He also said we’ve got to start looking at the front end of the problem – children in public schools who have adverse childhood experiences, for instance. If we can help people at that level, we can stop the pipeline to prison.

Justin Humphrey represents District 19 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, which includes parts of Atoka, Bryan, Choctaw and Pushmataha counties.