Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Oklahoma Sheriffs Prepare for a Showdown Over Criminal Justice Reform

Will the state with the second highest incarceration rate get its act together?

Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma Sheriffs Prepare for a Showdown Over Criminal Justice Reform

Will the state with the second highest incarceration rate get its act together?

Oklahoma had the second highest incarceration rate in the nation in 2014,and the number of people shepherded into its prisons and jails has continued to grow since. In April, the number of people under the supervision of the state’s Department of Corrections hit a record high of 62,000, with state prisons filled to the brim. Confronted with this grim reality, it has become clear to Republicans and Democrats that there is an urgent, dire need for reform. But in order to advance legislation, which now has bipartisan support from legislators, the governor, and constituents alike, lawmakers have to contend with members of the law enforcement community — who refuse to let bills pass without a fight.

Last Thursday, the same day Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech to the state’s sheriffs about the national and state “crime problem,” the leader of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association called on his colleagues to brace for a major legislative battle in the near future. “This is going to be probably one of the biggest defensive years that this association has ever had,” Executive Director Ray McNair said. He referenced potential cuts to fines and fees and efforts to turn certain felonies into misdemeanor offenses. “You have no idea the importance of being out at that Capitol.”

McNair’s plea to foil reform efforts was echoed by Rep. Scott Biggs (R), chair of Oklahoma’s judiciary committee. Noting their experiences with crime and sentencing, Biggs asked sheriffs to mobilize and pressure legislators to say no to reform. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an issue. This is a fight that is not going away,” he said. “But would you believe the Governor and her DOC director want to reduce penalties and early release for those individuals who disgrace the American flag. I don’t think that’s something that Oklahoma really, truly believes in, but that’s something they want to do.”

In many ways, the problems with Oklahoma’s criminal justice system mirror the problems detailed in every state grappling with mass incarceration. Detention facilities are teeming with people who come from poverty and communities of color and who were charged or convicted for low-level offenses. In December 2016, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Criminal Justice Reform Task Force reported that Oklahoma County, home of the state’s largest municipality, Oklahoma City, housed 2,581 people in a jail designed to hold 1,200. Many people who hadn’t been found guilty of a crime were too poor to make bail and were coping with substance abuse and mental illness. The Task Force concluded that drug and alcohol offenses accounted for the majority of felony, misdemeanor, and municipal charges that people were locked up for.

Statewide, criminal statutes have classified hundreds of minor offenses as felonies that lead to draconian sentences, with an average of 26 new crimes established annually from 2010 and 2015. But according to Brad Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, growth in the state’s carceral population isn’t a new phenomenon driven by recent legislation. Rather, it is a trend that has been ongoing since the 1990s. The current bloated system can be attributed to outdated tough-on-crime policies, he says.

“The impact of things like mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing — the so-called three strikes you’re out rule — can be exponential,” Henderson told In Justice Today. “You end up with people who suddenly are going in for longer and longer sentences. And those sentences are stacking on top of each other.”

Within the past two years, state lawmakers and constituents on both sides of the aisle have recognized a need for reform. Last November, voters passed SQ 780 and SQ 781, public referendums that reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, and provided funding for rehabilitative services. Both went into effect in July. But the victory was coupled with a major legislative defeat in May. Multiple reform bills that had large-scale bipartisan support failed to pass, forcing lawmakers to try again next year. “These [were] bills that were trying to ratchet down very bad over-incarceration policies that we’ve had for years,” Henderson said.

Biggs, the very same legislator calling on sheriffs to organize, is typically viewed as the culprit who stopped the bills dead in their tracks, earning McNair’s praise last week. As the leader of the judiciary, Biggs ultimately held the bills so they wouldn’t come to a floor vote, where they were likely to pass. But Biggs didn’t act alone, Henderson says. The House speaker or president pro tempore are authorized to circumvent chairmen who use their power to hold up the passage of legislation. But they didn’t.

Regardless of who is responsible for the past, sheriffs vowing to fight new bills could complicate reform in the future. In many other local legislative battles, law enforcement groups — representing hundreds and thousands of sheriffspolice officers, and prosecutors — have successfully lobbied politicians to block a wide range of reforms that had bipartisan support.

It is too early to say how many sheriffs will support the call to action, and the extent to which they will pressure lawmakers. But if McNair gets his way, every member of the association will fall in line. “We can’t have the same 10 or 11 people show up at the Capitol,” he said. “What we do out at the Capitol affects all 77 sheriffs.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

New Study Supports Larry Krasner’s Pledge to End Cash Bail in Philly

The City Controller’s report calls on the DA’s office to “dismantle the current cash bail system”

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz

New Study Supports Larry Krasner’s Pledge to End Cash Bail in Philly

The City Controller’s report calls on the DA’s office to “dismantle the current cash bail system”

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz has released an economic impact study with a startling finding: the city could save $75 million a year by ending cash bail and sending thousands of people arrested each year for nonviolent, low-level crimes home to await their court dates. As its number one recommendation, the report calls on the District Attorney’s office to “dismantle the current cash bail system.”

The study will likely benefit the campaign of Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s Democratic nominee for District Attorney, who has made ending cash bail a major part of his platform.

According to Butkovitz’ economic analysis, the elimination of cash bail for individuals charged with non-violent and low-level crimes would reduce Philadelphia’s total prison population from more than 6,500 to less than 4,700. This would allow the city to close the Philadelphia House of Correction and the city detention center, thus saving $75 million annually.

The report reads in part: “Research has found current systems can cause more damage on the incarcerated and their families than benefit, whereas alternatives may be just as effective, yet provide better futures for those in the criminal justice system.” Alternative suggestions made in the report for ensuring those charged show up in court range from sending out text message reminders to electronic monitoring.

Eliminating bail and closing jails would also allow Philadelphia to invest more resources in reducing recidivism and reentry programs, according to Butkovitz.

Councilman Curtis Jones has also called for the elimination of bail:

“I think we are at a time in Philadelphia where people are coming to the table sincerely wanting to change the criminal justice paradigm,” Jones said in an interview with PhillyVoice. “We want to get down to like 5,000 [inmates] and we are at 7,500 on average.”

Bail reform can achieve that goal, Jones maintained. Butkovitz agrees, insisting that keeping the current system in place is not only costly, it also unfairly penalizes those lacking financial resources.

“When you consider the cost of housing somebody in a prison, it amounts to about $160 a day for people who have not committed violent crimes and cannot raise the cash to make a low amount of bail,” he said. Moreover, Butkovitz maintains that the logic behind the practice of locking people up to make sure they appear in court is faulty.

“By sending people messages on their iPhones and hounding them into court, just reminding them is having a greater impact than holding their money over their head — particularly when the people who are incarcerated don’t have the money,” he argued, adding that keeping those awaiting trial out of jail allows them to hold onto their jobs and support their families.

If Philadelphia implements the suggestions made in the report, it will join other major cities and states in reforming bail practices. ChicagoWashington, D.C. and New Jersey have largely stopped using money as a condition for release. Court challenges have ended or dramatically altered money bail systems in a number of other jurisdictions around the country, and the movement is gaining nationwide support.

More in Explainers

Cuomo Talks Justice Reform, But Clings to Archaic Knife Law

A law that results in disproportionate arrests and prosecutions of black and Latino New Yorkers will stand.

Cuomo Talks Justice Reform, But Clings to Archaic Knife Law

A law that results in disproportionate arrests and prosecutions of black and Latino New Yorkers will stand.

On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declined for a second time to approve bipartisan legislation that would have reformed a statute that currently outlaws gravity knives. The law in question, introduced in 1958, criminalizes the possession of a broad array of knives by defining “gravity knife” as any knife that can pop open with a flick of the wrist and locks into place — everything from standard pocket knives, to those used by construction workers and electricians, to larger lock-blade folding knives.

The proposed bill passed the Assembly in May by a vote of 136 to 1, and then the Senate by a vote of 61 to 1, before landing on Cuomo’s desk in June. Proponents of the vetoed bill have criticized the law’s overly-broad language, and point to the current law’s disproportionate use in the arrest and prosecution of thousands New Yorkers of color. Between July and December 2015, for example, the Legal Aid Society found 84 percent of their clients arrested for the possession of a gravity knife were black and or Latino.

In the face of numbers like these, Cuomo vetoed the bill safe with the knowledge that he had the support of numerous powerful New York City figures, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, all of city’s District Attorneys, and the New York Police Department. In a letter explaining his veto, Cuomo castigated the retooling of the state’s definition of gravity knife: “The Legislature has gone far beyond the innocent laborers carrying these knives for legitimate purposes and has grossly disregarded the concerns of law enforcement.”

Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance, in particular, has strongly opposed reforming the law, as reported extensively by The Village Voice. Gravity knife possession is prosecuted across the city as a misdemeanor, with a higher concentration of cases in the Bronx and Manhattan, according to the Legal Aid Society’s data. If a person caught with a gravity knife has been convicted of any previous crime, the law permits the penalty to be bumped up to a felony. In Manhattan, Vance increased gravity knife cases to felonies four times more frequently than all the other boroughs combined during that six month period, according to the Legal Aid Society.

Over the course of their time in public office, Cuomo, Vance, and de Blasio have all positioned themselves as progressives with varying degrees of commitment to reforming the state and city’s criminal justice systems. In March, Cuomo penned an editorial for USA Today with Cut50 founder Van Jones, calling for reform of a “justice system that’s failing the most vulnerable,” and criticizing that state’s frequent placement of 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult rather than juvenile justice system.

In 2016, Cuomo boasted that he would “go down in the history books as the governor who closed the most prisons in the history of the state of New York.” In 2017, he introduced and endorsed an ambitious set of goals to ensure speedy trial access and to overhaul the state’s bail system, among other reforms. De Blasio has vowed to close Rikers Island jail within ten years, and Vance has publicly lamented the crisis of mass incarceration.

All of this sounds promising. But Cuomo, de Blasio, and Vance’s staunch opposition to reform of the state’s antiquated knife law is squarely at odds with their allegedly progressive agendas. There is ample evidence that the statute in its current form leads to frequent arrests of working New Yorkers who pose no threat to public safety, and who carry knives for their jobs in fields that the city’s infrastructure relies on, such as construction and electric work.

Of all those prosecuted for gravity knife possession during the 6-month period documented by the Legal Aid Society, the charge of “intent to use a gravity knife unlawfully against another” was used in just five percent of cases. The numbers show this law isn’t making New Yorkers safer; it’s locking them up in the jails and prisons that the city’s progressive leaders allegedly want to close.

More in Podcasts