This past Wednesday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a package of justice reform bills into law, making the Sooner State the latest conservative state to adopt these “smart-on-crime” policies. That same day, Gov. Nathan Deal, on the other side of the country in Georgia, signed a smaller justice reform package into law, expanding on the state’s already impressive portfolio of justice reform initiatives. With the simultaneous adoption of these justice reform measures into law, conservative states like Oklahoma and Georgia are the pioneers in effective justice reform.
The Oklahoma justice reform package is a group of four bills that primarily deals with limiting the harsh punitive measures taken against non-violent offenders. These new laws would give district attorneys and courts more leeway when dealing with people charged with drug possession, allowing them to classify the charges as misdemeanors and opening up the possibilities for alternate forms of treatment rather than jail time. One such law, HB 2479, reforms the state’s three-strike felony policy for drug-related felonies, lowering the mandatory minimum sentences for people charged with felonies for the first, second, and third time. Gov. Fallin had been extremely supportive of these measures since the beginning of the legislative session, mentioning such justice reform efforts in her State of the State speech.
Across the country, Georgia had first begun implementing justice reform in 2011. Oklahoma actually passed a number of their new initiatives off of Georgia’s example, such as the creation of drug courts. Therefore, the bill that Gov. Deal signed into law on Wednesday, SB 367, is continuing along the trend of expanding the justice reform agenda.
The bill protects the rights of non-violent first time offenders by giving them the opportunity to shield their criminal record from their offense. State licensing boards will also be limited in requiring people with criminal histories to disclose that information on job forms, giving these former inmates a chance to rejoin society and be productive. The bill makes a number of other structural changes, such as creating more charter schools within prisons, allowing former prisoners to keep their driver’s license, and giving non-violent offenders, who have served extremely long sentences, a chance at eligibility for parole.
Both Govs. Mary Fallin and Nathan Deal have been stalwart advocates of criminal justice reform, and these reforms are yielding success. At the signing of the bill, Gov. Deal mentioned how, in 2011, Georgia’s prison population could have expanded to 60,000 inmates if reform weren’t enacted. Now, five years later, the Georgia prison population is 53,800, more than a 10 percent decrease from earlier projections. While much work remains necessary across the country, Oklahoma and Georgia have both made excellent progress in reforming and enacting a successful and effective criminal justice system.