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Oklahoma revamps justice system.

Despite resistance by sheriffs and district attorneys, Oklahoma passed a sweeping reform of its state correctional system in April, signaling the beginning of a truth-in-sentencing law, expansion of community corrections and an end to early release programs. The package also authorizes spending for space for 2,100 more prisoners.

"It's the most important criminal justice reform act in the history of our state," says Senator Calvin Hobson. He says the complexity of the issues and the breadth of the overhaul made it difficult work for the bipartisan committee that drew up the package. "It was the hardest conference I've ever been involved with in the 19 years I've been in the Legislature."

He admitted there was some resistance by law enforcement and lawyers because "they don't like change."

"But now we have the sheriffs' association working with us and many district attorneys," he added. "When it's in place, we'll all be pulling in the same direction."

An impetus for reform was the decreasing amount of prison space and the increasing number of offenders. "There's a good balance between more incarceration space for repeat, violent offenders and a strong community program for nonviolent offenders," Hobson points out. "We just couldn't throw hundreds of millions of dollars at the Department of Corrections. It would have bankrupted the state."

The truth-in-sentencing provision requires all inmates convicted of violent crimes after July 1, 1998, as well as repeat offenders, to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Juries may no longer impose sentences, except in first-degree murder cases for which death or life in prison without parole are the penalties. Judges would set sentences for all other crimes.

The package also establishes community sentencing advisory committees to draw up programs and enter into agreements with the Department of Corrections. Community sentencing is designed to reduce costs by providing alternatives to imprisonment for people convicted of some nonviolent crimes.

It also gives judges flexibility and a wide range of alternatives, such as jail time, restitution, electronic monitoring, house arrest, and mandatory drug and alcohol counseling. Programs could range from drug treatment to job training.

"This essentially makes Oklahoma a state that no longer recognizes the concept of parole," said Senate President Pro Tern Stratton Taylor.

A 12-member, bipartisan House-Senate committee worked on the issue for seven weeks before its introduction and passage by the Legislature. The proposal will cost an estimated $429 million over 10 years, according to state officials.
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Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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