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In Oklahoma, a Red State Model of Criminal Justice Reform

A Republican-led coalition has led a successful campaign to shrink the prison population, improve reintegration, and expand diversion courts

Rita Parker is greeted by Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma First Lady Sarah Stitt as she is released from Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center after having her sentence commuted by the state on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via Associated Press)

Anyone looking for proof that criminal justice reform is a bipartisan issue need look no further than Oklahoma. The state is the reddest of red, and not just because of its famously rusty soil. Donald Trump won voters there by more than 30 points in 2016 and 2020. The current governor, Kevin Stitt, used his first three years checking every box for the Republican base. 

And in the last half-decade, Oklahoma has enacted a series of landmark legislation that has reclassified drug offenses, removed barriers to reintegration, and reappropriated funding to social services — all with stunningly positive outcomes. More than a one-off effort, these policies span two different governorships and demonstrate how justice reform can earn bipartisan support and a warm public reception — all while helping people involved in the carceral system. The work stands as a valuable example to states blue and red about how change is possible across the political spectrum. 

There is a growing consensus nationwide that just because you’re conservative doesn’t mean that you can’t also be a reformer in criminal justice. In my opinion, there’s nothing more conservative than preventing the government from overreaching into people’s lives,” said David Gateley, a criminal justice policy analyst of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. When we can find common ground on issues, that’s where the most work can get done. And that’s really true for Oklahoma.”

Initial Efforts

Justice reform came to Oklahoma because of one big problem: Its incarceration rate was the highest of nearly any place on Earth. In 2018, Oklahoma kept behind bars 1,079 per 100,000 people — roughly 1.3% of its entire adult population. At the time, the national rate was 698. Racial and ethnic disparities among the incarcerated population were especially disturbing, with Black citizens making up 7% of Oklahoma residents but 26% of its prison or jail inhabitants as of the 2010 census. 

The incarceration rate reached these record levels for the same reasons observed nationwide: the War on Drugs, tough-on-crime policies, a lack of social safety net, and a ruthless approach to sentencing, Gateley said. Oklahoma’s sentencing laws include a three-strikes rule that sends anyone convicted of three criminal charges (with one being a violent felony) to life in prison, and a truth-in-sentencing measure required people convicted of violent crimes to serve 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole, regardless of good behavior. 

Hitting that milestone as the nation’s highest incarcerator, as well as prisons reaching 110% capacity, shook Oklahomans and their leaders into action. Then-Gov. Mary Fallin had signed justice reform legislation (HB 3052) in 2012, but it was not fully funded or implemented. So in 2016 she launched an Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force. 

Criminal justice reform is a priority for my administration, and I am confident that we can find ways to make our communities safer and cut the growing cost of our state’s corrections system,” Fallin said at the time. 

Mary Fallin Oklahoma criminal justice reform
In this 2018 file photo, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, left, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, Texas Public Policy Foundation President and CEO Brooke Rollins, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez participate in a panel discussion titled Successes in the States” at a prison reform summit at the White House. (Alex Wong/​Getty Images)

Also in 2016, a nonprofit coalition called the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, led by the state’s former Republican House Speaker Kris Steele, placed two initiatives on the ballot for that year’s general election: State Question 780, which reclassified some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and State Question 781, which required the money saved by 780 to be reallocated to substance abuse and mental health services. Voters approved both, with the former passing by a whopping 17 points.

The measures went into effect in July 2017. That year the Task Force also submitted 27 suggestions for policy reform and 12 bills. However, only three received legislative approval. 

While disappointed with the lack of progress this session, I remain committed to criminal justice reform and will continue the push to make Oklahoma smarter on how we confront crime,” Fallin said. In 2018, she finally got a sweeping package of seven justice reform bills through, which modified sentencing and overhauled the state’s system of parole. 

Read: Q&A With Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt

When I was running for governor, I realized that we were last place — we were 50th out of 50 states in incarceration rates. I’m like, OK, either we have worse people than everybody else, or we’ve got some bad policies. I knew it was the bad policies.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt

The efforts coincided with the 2018 gubernatorial election, and the topic had reached such awareness with the general population that the Republican candidate, political newcomer and Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt, was able to push through a crowded primary by focusing on criminal justice.

As a businessman, I have a lot of metrics I look at. When I was running for governor, I realized that we were last place — we were 50th out of 50 states in incarceration rates,” Stitt told Arnold Ventures recently. I’m like, OK, either we have worse people than everybody else, or we’ve got some bad policies. I knew it was the bad policies.”

That ability to win on a criminal justice platform was a shock to political pundits.

He took everybody by surprise when he won the Republican nomination, because he was campaigning in a non-traditional way: He wasn’t talking about locking them up. He was saying we should continue these reforms,” said Lauren Krisai, a senior state policy manager at the Justice Action Network. Along with endorsements from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, Stitt’s messaging proved a resounding success when he won in November 2018.

New Leadership

Within his first weeks in office, Gov. Stitt took the popular State Question 780 one step further with HB 1269, which made those voter-approved reclassifications retroactive. The result at the time was the largest single-day commutation in American history, with 462 inmates released.

It takes real courage to do something like that. That is going to get a lot of attention,” Krisai said. It really set the tone for his first term in office — he is going to do what’s right, not something that might not be politically popular or politically easy in a state like Oklahoma. He did it anyway.”

The governor’s office, the Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board, and the Department of Corrections also teamed up with nonprofits across the state to host transition fairs to provide men and women leaving prison with information and resources for rejoining free society. Stitt and First Lady Sarah Stitt chatted with the newly released women as they exited a correctional facility near Tulsa. It was an honor to greet the women at Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility & encourage them as they return to their families & friends to begin their second chance,” Stitt tweeted alongside images of him and his wife shaking the women’s hands.

The first year of Stitt’s administration also brought the passage of HB 1373, which made it easier for people with a criminal record to receive occupational licenses, and HB 2765, which appropriated more than $10 million to expand drug court options and fund diversion programs and substance abuse services. While legislative attention shifted in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic, progress was still realized, as the Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center and Cimarron Correctional Facility were both able to close just a few years after the state’s leaders had predicted they’d need to build more prisons to keep up with projections.

Last year brought HB 1795, which made it possible for people leaving the system to get a driver’s license and harder for a license to be revoked due to failure to pay fines or fees. It also ushered in the Sarah Stitt Act, requiring the Department of Corrections to supply individuals leaving custody with a REAL ID card, a résumé noting any trade proficiency, copies of their work records and vocational training, and other documentation to help them secure employment and housing. The legislation, championed by the first lady, passed unanimously in both chambers.

And in May 2022, there was HB 4369, which allowed offenders on supervised parole to earn time credits to decrease their supervision, and HB 3316, which automated the expungement of those who were eligible. Taken together, the surge of reform legislation has given Stitt’s administration some staggering results: the incarceration rate of Oklahoma dropped by more than 20%, and the recidivism rate is now 18.6%, according to the governor’s office, among the lowest in the nation.


Recidivism rate in Oklahoma, among the lowest in the nation

The outpouring was also driven by conservative legislators.

The Senate president pro tempore, Greg Treat, sponsored a lot of these reforms, as did other Republicans in leadership,” Krisai said. In Oklahoma, there is a lot of support for criminal justice reform, but through a Republican lens — prioritizing public safety, reducing recidivism, and offering second chances.”

Stitt and other Republican leaders interested in reform were aided by yet more numbers that, in theory, should have cut off any possible dissent at the pass: Crime dropped by double-digit percentages between 2019 and 2022, according to the state dashboard of metrics.

Looking Ahead

Of course, the dissent came anyway. You can look at the ads in the last primary season, where he was hammered pretty hard for those commutations alone from the right,” Gateley said. We’re starting to see more pushback as many claim crime is rising not only in Oklahoma, but across the nation.”

Or at least, the perception of crime.

Attack ads from dark money groups such as Conservative Voice of America and the Sooner State Leadership Fund that aired in Spring 2022 drew attention to the fact that two of the people whose sentences Stitt commuted were accused of committing murders since their release in 2019. Oklahomans deserve a governor who cracks down on violent criminals, not one who lets them go,” said one. Tell Gov. Stitt enough is enough.”

Stitt said in response, “[W]e’re going to be a law and order state. But we’re also talking about fairness, and locking up people that we’re afraid of, not just who we’re mad at.

Stitt won the Republican primary handily, is expected to be re-elected in November, and vows his energy around the topic will not peter out. He’s interested in pushing through a felony classification system (which, unlike most states, Oklahoma doesn’t have) and the elimination of certain fees assessed to criminal defendants.

We have a broken funding system for courts across the state. Ninety percent of all court funding comes from court fines and fees,” Gateley said. So we are funding our vital court systems off of the backs of some of the poorest Oklahomans.”

There’s hope around the issue, he noted, because Stitt recently signed HB 3205, which marked the single largest reduction in juvenile court fees in state history.

Krisai’s own list includes alternatives to incarceration, pre-trial reform, post-release and supervisory systems, and gathering more data about who is incarcerated in Oklahoma and why they’re behind bars.

There’s a lot that can be done in Oklahoma still,” she said. It’s good that they have started to take steps towards reorienting their justice system so that it creates these better outcomes, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

In the meantime, the work in Oklahoma stands as a testament that criminal justice reform can be led by conservatives.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat — we want safe communities. We want lower taxes,” Stitt said. Are there people that need to be in prison? One hundred percent, and we’re not shrinking from that at all. But we know that the pendulum in Oklahoma swung a little bit too far on this, and we’re getting back control of it.”

Stitt’s popularity makes activists and experts hopeful for continued support around this topic.

I think other lawmakers can learn that when you stand up for good policy, that creates better outcomes. You’re going to be rewarded for that politically,” Krisai said. In the long run, it does benefit you to stand up for what is right.”