- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Four criminal justice measures designed to slow the growth of Oklahoma’s prison population were signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday, but she and top lawmakers said more needs to be done to change Oklahoma’s distinction as among the leading states in some categories of incarceration.

“All of us have the goal of preserving public safety and making sure their communities are safe,” Fallin said. But policy makers must also justify the cost of the state’s criminal justice system, especially when faced with a $1.3 billion hole in next year’s budget largely due to declining energy prices.

“We all want to be tough on crime, but we also want to be smart on crime,” the governor said.

The state leads the nation in its incarceration rate for women and ranks second nationally in its male incarceration rate, according to Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, House author of the four measures. Almost 28,000 state inmates are housed in state or privately operated prisons, 112 percent of the system’s capacity.

Almost 60 percent of state prison inmates were convicted of a substance-abuse related offense and many were convicted of non-violent offenses, according to corrections officials.

“Oklahoma’s drug possession laws have filled our prisons. Many of our prisons are filled over capacity,” Fallin said.

“What we have been doing in the past hasn’t been working,” said Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, Senate author of three of the four bills.

Each of the measures is among Fallin’s top priorities for the 2016 Oklahoma Legislature. Among other things, the bills allow district attorneys to file misdemeanor charges instead of felonies for certain crimes; reduce mandatory sentences for drug offenses; raise the felony threshold from $500 to $1,000 for property crimes; and expand the number of offenders eligible for drug courts.

The measures were developed by a bipartisan task force composed of prosecutors, defense attorneys and criminal justice professionals and all have been endorsed by the state District Attorneys Council, officials said. All four take effect on Nov. 1.

Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, author of the drug court expansion measure, said it costs about $20,000 a year to house an inmate in the state prison system but only about $5,000 to adjudicate and treat offenders in state drug courts that operate in almost all of the state’s 77 counties.

“We’ve been penny wise, dollar foolish,” Shaw said.

“This will pave the way for a wider use of drug courts and community sentencing as well as give judges and district attorneys more discretion in sentencing,” Fallin said.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said lawmakers in the House and Senate are working on additional measures to change the state’s criminal justice system.

“We’re not finished. We still have a crisis in our state prisons,” Hickman said.

Volunteers with a criminal justice advocacy group, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, are collecting signatures for a pair of initiative petitions to change how Oklahoma classifies some drug and property crimes. Volunteer have until June 7 to gather more than 65,000 signatures to schedule a statewide referendum.

One petition would reclassify certain drug and property offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The second would require the state to estimate the resulting cost savings and direct that money toward crime-prevention efforts such as rehabilitation programs, education and job training.

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House Bill 2479: https://bit.ly/1R1Fp5H

House Bill 2751: https://bit.ly/1WcpOGT

House Bill 2472: https://bit.ly/208HvHr

House Bill 2753: https://bit.ly/1mXV1Ps

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