Frustrated with a House committee chairman's failure to call for votes on several criminal justice reform initiatives, leaders of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and Tulsa Regional Chamber issued a joint statement Monday urging House leadership to get involved.
“It is midafternoon on the day everyone was assured these bills would get the hearing they deserve, yet no meeting is scheduled," Roy Williams, president & CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, and Mike Neal, president & CEO of the Tulsa Regional Chamber, said in a joint news release Monday.
"These bills are major priorities of our chambers and dozens of other organizations that care deeply about Oklahoma," they said. "The criminal justice system these bills create is strongly supported by voters, countless advocates and experts, the business community and a majority of legislators."
The chamber leaders criticized state Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, for failing to bring a series of criminal justice reform measures up for a vote in the House Conference Committee on Judiciary — Criminal Justice & Corrections that he chairs.
"If Representative Biggs won't give them a fair hearing, we urge House leadership to grant Representative Bobby
Cleveland's courageous request to reassign the bills to his Public Safety Committee for a vote,” the chamber leaders said.
"Oklahoma's financial future depends on these reforms."
Former House Speaker Kris Steele, a leading reform advocate, said he fears that Biggs is attempting to stall action on the bills until the current legislative session ends.
"If Rep. Biggs wants to vote against corrections reform policies in Oklahoma, that is his prerogative, but he should not prevent other members the opportunity to vote on these important bills," Steele said.
Biggs, a former prosecutor, contends the bills contain major flaws and said he and other concerned committee members have participated in multiple meetings with the bills' authors, governor's staff and House Speaker's staff in attempts to come up with solutions to the problems.
The bills contain "loopholes that would allow sex offenders to get out early, repeat offenders leniency — even for violent crimes," Biggs said, adding that he was also concerned about the impacts the reforms would have on courts.
Steele disputed Biggs' characterization of the bills, contending "these reforms only apply to nonviolent offenses."
Biggs said he and others support reforms called for in Senate Bill 603, which calls for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to develop risk and needs assessments and individual case plans for inmates in an effort to reduce recidivism.
However, Biggs said he is concerned about department estimates that it would cost $80 million to implement the program over five years.
"How, in this budget year, do we come up the money?" Biggs said, while openly acknowledging that he was skeptical of the Department of Corrections' cost estimate.
Steele noted the cost estimate is for five years and said the first year costs would be much lower. The cost savings from incarcerating fewer offenders would more than cover cost increases in future years, he contends.
Steele said he believes the state can pay for the necessary first year reforms with an extra $30 million, which he says is doable in even a tough budget year.
What the Legislature needs to focus on is the governor's criminal justice reform task force report that said without reform, Oklahoma is on pace to add 7,218 inmates over the next 10 years, Steele said. That would require three new prisons and cost the state an additional $1.9 billion in capital expenditures and operating costs, the report said.
Biggs said that under House rules, both he and Rep. Cleveland would have to agree for the bills to be reassigned to Cleveland's committee.
"Since Rep. Cleveland's committee is nothing more than a rubber stamp committee, I would not be agreeable to that," Biggs said. "Rubber stamping these bills would put the public in jeopardy and that's something I will not do."
However, Biggs acknowledged that the House Speaker could change House rules.
Steele disagreed with Biggs' interpretation of House rules and said it is his understanding that either the bills' principle authors or the House Speaker could request that a bill be reassigned.
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