OKLAHOMA CITY — A coalition of business and faith leaders pushing a package of bills aimed at lowering Oklahoma's highest-in-the-nation prison incarceration rate are running into a familiar obstacle — the state's elected district attorneys.
Led by former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, the bipartisan group hosted a rally on Tuesday and called on the Legislature to pass the package of bills aimed at stopping Oklahoma's skyrocketing prison population growth.
The bills would reduce criminal penalties for several nonviolent crimes and retroactively apply a state question approved by voters in 2016 that made drug possession a misdemeanor. Other bills would overhaul the state's bail system and reduce the likelihood of imprisonment for technical probation or parole violations.
"This is a pivotal moment in Oklahoma history," said Steele, flanked by dozens of women from a program in Tulsa that helps them adjust to life outside of prison. "We have the right people in place. Now is the time to act."
Oklahoma's new Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has said reducing the state's prison population is a top priority, but many of the proposals are facing fierce opposition from district attorneys and law enforcement.
"The District Attorneys Association doesn't have any problem with well thought out criminal justice reforms, but some of the proposed legislation would create havoc in the criminal justice system," said Brian Hermanson, the top prosecutor for Kay and Noble counties.
Hermanson said the plan to retroactively apply State Question 780 to currently incarcerated inmates would require each of those cases to be re-evaluated and returned to counties to be litigated again.
"That can be much more responsibly dealt with through the pardon and parole process," Hermanson said.
Stitt spokeswoman Donelle Harder said the governor remains committed to losing the state's dubious distinction as the nation's leader in incarceration. She said among the governor's priorities are funding the district attorneys through the state's general fund rather than having prosecutors rely on collecting fees and fines from defendants. Many ex-inmates find it impossible to get back on their feet after being released from prison because of crushing debt from court costs.
"The biggest feedback he got from Oklahomans was about the debt," Harder said. "That's what people feel at the end of the day."
Oklahoma's state prison facilities are at 112 percent of capacity, and staffing levels are so low at some facilities that some fear the U.S. Justice Department could demand the state make changes, said Bobby Cleveland, director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals. Cleveland pointed to what is happening in Alabama, where the GOP-controlled Legislature was forced to boost funding by $40 million, mostly to increase pay and hire an additional 500 officers for state prisons, to stave off a lawsuit from the Department of Justice over prison violence.
"The same thing's going to happen here if they don't do something now," said Cleveland, who is seeking a pay raise for Department of Corrections workers.