OKLAHOMA CITY — Scott Biggs says he’s had to do some explaining to his Oklahoma constituents about why a quintet of high-profile criminal justice reform bills languished in his committee.
Biggs, a state representative from Chickasha, said he has plenty of constituents who support criminal justice reform, but like him they draw the line at keeping violent offenders out of prison just to help reduce the inmate population and cut costs.
As the Republican former assistant district attorney sees it, the measures that died in his committee would have re-classified domestic abuse by strangulation, assault and battery, child trafficking and certain hate crimes as nonviolent. They would have reduced mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes, increased eligibility for early release and made it easier to expunge criminal records.
“Within a minute (my constituents) were more understanding,” Biggs said. “This was not responsible justice reform.”
No one he’s met in his district, for instance, agrees with the idea of decreasing the penalty for burning an American Flag from four years to life for repeat offenders to three years and nine months.
But advocates from across the political spectrum are bitterly disappointed that the bills were allowed to languish and die without a full vote of the Legislature before the final gavel fell last month. They say Biggs, who chairs the House’s powerful criminal justice and corrections judiciary committee, and a handful of other Republican leaders singlehandedly managed to thwart the latest round of criminal justice reform efforts.
“I think we just have a few lawmakers who are opposed to this reform, and they very effectively managed to throw a monkey-wrench into the whole process,” said Andrew Speno, the Oklahoma State Director of Right on Crime, a more right-leaning group that promotes justice reform.
“I think leadership was so preoccupied with crafting a budget deal that criminal justice did not get the attention it needed,” he said. “It’s an incredible disappointment. It’s more than a disappointment. It’s a crisis.”
Proponents of the measures come from across the political spectrum, business communities and non-profits. They’d led a high-profile push to nudge the measures through the Legislature, which has traditionally embraced “tough-on-crime” policies.
“Rep. Biggs out of spite and an allegiance to prosecutors over public safety held the governor’s public safety bills hostage,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU’s Oklahoma chapter.
He said the public should be “shaking with anger.”
“He never intended for those bills to come up for a hearing,” Kiesel said.
In a statement, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who has been a staunch supporter of the measures, said the measures failed “mostly because of resistance” from Biggs.
“Without jeopardizing public safety, with these bills, we could have implemented smart, data-driven solutions to safely and prudently fix our criminal justice system,” Fallin said.
Reform advocates contend Oklahoma is on an unsustainable financial path. Without substantive criminal justice reform, officials say taxpayers should expect to pay an additional $200 million a year over the next decade to prop up the Department of Corrections’ budget and nearly $2 billion to build three new prisons to house a growing prison population.
Biggs said proponents of the latest measures refused to negotiate even when they received pushback and heard concerns from dozens of lawmakers concerned about reclassifying certain offenses as nonviolent.
Biggs said Fallin and other advocates just wanted to push the measures through before Oklahomans knew what was in them.
“On one level they know they have a problem with these bills,” Biggs said. “On another level, I just think they don’t care. If I have to be the target as the one who stands on the side of victims and on the side of public safety, I will do that all day.”
But advocates said Biggs and other lawmakers should have taken November’s criminal justice ballot measures as a mandate from the public to do more.
Starting July 1, State Question 780 reclassifies certain nonviolent drug and theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors in an effort to reduce the number of people locked up in prison. A companion piece, State Question 781, sends any savings to counties to for rehabilitation programs.
The measures passed with 58 percent support statewide, though voters in urban areas endorsed it more enthusiastically.
“I can say the vote in November was much more than a vote for state questions 780 and 781,” Kiesel said. “It was a vote for further reform. The voters of Oklahoma recognize we are in crisis mode right now.”
Advocates said they won’t be deterred by this year’s outcome. They’ll be contacting lawmakers in the interim and back at the Capitol next year to push for further reform.
“Next year, I’m optimistic because I think the legislature for the most part sees what happened this year as a squandered opportunity,” Speno said. “They’ll have a chance to do something really right. It’s an opportunity, I hope they’ll take.”
In the meantime, Biggs said he wants to hold a study at the Capitol to take a closer look at how crimes are classified as violent or nonviolent.
If the study is approved, it will likely be held later this summer.
And in a statement Friday, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, pledged that the remaining criminal justice measures would be worked on during the interim.
"Without a doubt, criminal justice reform is a priority for the Legislature because it greatly affects public safety and our state budget," McCall said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.