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Bills would bring 14% prison growth

Oklahoma's prison population will continue to grow in the years ahead  the only question is how much.

A marquee slate of criminal justice reform bills fall short of what Gov. Mary Fallin's Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, a little over a year ago, recommended to curb incarceration rates and provide alternatives to prison.

By 2025, the prison population will be 30,947 if the six bills pass as currently written, according to an analysis from FWD.us, a national group that specializes in immigration and criminal justice data. Without any legislation, the figure would be 35,798.

That means the prison population would increase by about 14 percent if the six bills pass, and 32 percent of they don't. On April 15, the inmate population stood at 27,068, with another 1,146 inmates in county jails awaiting transfer. Prisons are operating at 112 percent capacity.

Fallin's task force recommendations, by comparison, would eliminate all growth and drop the population below 27,000.

But it's not all bad news for criminal justice reform advocates.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved four of the six key bills, which stalled in conference committee at the end of last year's regular legislative session. The House approved two. The bills still must go to the opposite chambers and then on to the governor.

The bills touch a bevy of issues: probation violations, sentencing for habitual offenders and more. Revised language has trickled out in conference committee, but the bills still face votes in both chambers of the statehouse.

The District Attorneys Council worked with Fallin and legislators to draft the revised bills, which are likely to be brought up for floor votes any day. Fallin appeared with district attorneys at a March 5 press conference to announce the agreed-upon language.

The chairman of the council said the bills reflect a common-sense approach and are a compromise that will benefit the state.

District Attorney Kevin Buchanan, who represents Washington and Nowata counties, said the bills have good representation from "every aspect of the criminal justice system."

Kris Steele, chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and a former speaker of the state House, said the bills are the start of broad criminal justice reform.

"The prison population in Oklahoma, unfortunately, will continue to grow. But I think these bills do represent progress, and these bills are a foundation that we can continue to build upon," he said.

Steele, also a member of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, said proposed reforms in the parole process are a big help. House Bill 2286 has a provision allowing administrative parole for nonviolent offenders, which would streamline the process and make release automatic for incarcerated people who qualify and stay out of trouble.

"There's a pretty strong incentive for them to be released, and I think that reform is very much a step in the right direction," Steele said.

Another bill, Senate Bill 649, which targets nine crimes, reduces the penalties for repeat theft- and forgery-related offenders.

"We would prefer that the reforms apply to all nonviolent offenses, but again this is a step in the right direction," he said.

Mimi Tarrasch, director of the Women in Recovery program in Tulsa, said long prison sentences for habitual offenders aren't the answer. Instead, it's important to address root causes and provide long-term intervention for addicts. Often, a 30-day or 60-day treatment program simply isn't enough, she said.

"It's devastating to the women. It's devastating to the children. It becomes devastating to families," she said of the toll of incarceration on those in prison and those on the outside.

That's why SB 649, which addresses the issues of habitual offenders, is a good step in the right direction, she said.

Another bill, SB 689, offers some clarity on what constitutes technical probation violations, giving more leeway to people on probation before they get sent back to prison for things such as missing court-ordered curfews or meetings with parole officers.

"We should not be sending people to prison for technical violations, at least not immediately," Steele said.

Buchanan said he hasn't seen advocates' population projections but says the measures will help the criminal justice system while protecting the public.

"I think the result of what we did is more appropriate in terms of public safety than what they are suggesting," he said. "I think our result probably gives more weight and is a little more thoughtful in terms of public safety than theirs was but we're still achieving the goals."

That means the prison population would increase by about 14 percent if the six bills pass, and 32 percent of they don't. On April 15, the inmate population stood at 27,068, with another 1,146 inmates in county jails awaiting transfer. Prisons are operating at 112 percent capacity.

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