J.C. Watts: Tide is turning toward criminal justice reform

Oklahoma has much to take pride in. In the case of incarceration, however, the Sooner State falls toward the bottom of the heap. With the third-highest incarceration rate in the nation, Oklahoma taxpayers foot a prison tab that surpasses $450 million each year. Worse yet, the state’s tremendous investment in incarceration has had no discernable impact on public safety. During the past decade or so while the state’s prison population nearly doubled, our crime rate fell by just over 14 percent. Meanwhile, the nationwide prison population plummeted by almost half over the same period.

Our state leadership has been testing the waters of prison reform for several years. In 2012, Gov. Mary Fallin signed House Bill 3052, implementing a few reforms of note. But since then, criminal justice reform in Oklahoma stalled.

Until now, that is. On Tuesday, Fallin signed a significant piece of legislation to help Oklahomans control spending on corrections. The Justice Safety Valve Act gives judges alternative sentencing options for some nonviolent crimes. In cases where the defendant doesn’t pose a risk to public safety, this important reform will allow judges to depart from the state’s mandatory minimum requirements, a leading factor driving our state’s prison population.

Significant work remains, but the bipartisan support for criminal justice reform shown this legislative session is promising. The Legislature has passed several other bills that would make important improvements in the criminal justice system.

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