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Criminal Justice Reform From The Bottom Floor

Sam Talley

Posted by TTB Administrator July 27, 2017

A bi-weekly series of articles about criminal justice reform issues in Oklahoma seen from the perspective of TTB LAW lead criminal attorney Sam Talley.

Most of the discussion and action on the issue of criminal justice reform is presently taking place on what I like to call the “top floor” – meaning it is in the legislature, with the Governor, and luckily, with the team of Eagles in the community that make up “Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform,” one of this State’s best and most important associations. I live on the bottom floor of this issue if you will, in the trenches as a trial lawyer, and that is not a complaint from me. I have found out that is where I am supposed to be, and where I am most beneficial to my clients tackling these issues of reform.

I appreciate all that is happening above me in this State, and am thankful the battle is underway and turning. I am pleasantly amazed that mass incarceration is one of the few issues both political parties can agree on in the media. It shows how big of a problem we have. While I appreciate the top floor, the top floor members need to spend, or continue to spend, as much time on the bottom floor as is possible to see the issues first hand. Even more importantly, lawyers on the bottom floor must do their part. If we don’t use the reform legislation given to us, what’s the point of complaining about the problems?

One great example of criminal justice reform, that we actually have and are not waiting on in politics, that is not currently being utilized is the Justice Safety Valve Act. This series of articles I am writing will explore several more areas of law where reform is present or needed, but let’s look at this issue only in this article. The Justice Safety Valve Act was passed in November 2015, and it gives district judges the ability to avoid a minimum mandatory sentence for a repeat non-violent offender. It is powerful in theory in that it allows the District Courts to interrupt the cycle of repeated incarceration; to try find and fix the problems in a person’s life, rather than locking them up and throwing away the key and to use a safety valve on them to avoid prison. This law was an initial step in the right direction of reform, which overall is a project of re-arming the justice system to help people and the State instead and move away from the system of mass incarceration we currently have.

Here is the issue: it is not even being used. Every time a district court uses the act for a defendant it must be documented per law. Amazingly, it has been used by a court ONLY ONCE in this State since inception that is documented. I recently called the Oklahoma and Tulsa County clerks and the Administrative Office of Courts who are three of the largest agencies which would document results from our State and that is what I was told.

We can do better than this. My firm and others are arguing for this in courtrooms daily but if Judges are not educated or empowered to use this system and/or break from their traditional systematic decisions that lead toward incarceration, then what is even the point of reform? Reform must be met with action from the bottom floor, and we need help not only in policy from the top floor but we need action. We will keep fighting. I know that is where we are now. And I have hope we will win eventually.