Oklahoma Governor Signs Promising Criminal Justice Reforms

Commentary

Oklahoma Governor Signs Promising Criminal Justice Reforms

Last week, Oklahoma Governor, Mary Fallin, signed four criminal justice bills aimed at reducing the prison population without compromising public safety. “Our state prisons are filled to well over capacity, so it is crucial that we make some changes to our criminal justice system” explained Fallin. The content within these bills came from recommendations from those within the criminal justice field, including judges, district attorneys and public defenders.

The four bills Fallin signed provide the following changes:

  • HB 2479 eliminates the draconian mandatory 2-year prison sentence for possession of most drugs and replaces it with an indeterminate sentence of not more than 5 years, giving judges more discretion in sentencing. It also replaces the 4-year mandatory minimum sentence for second-time offenses with a sentence not to exceed 10 years.
  • HB 2472allows prosecutors to file a charge as a misdemeanor rather than a felony as long as the offense is not explicitly violent in nature. Oklahoma law requires certain violent offenders (charged with murder, rape, crimes against children, etc.) to serve 85% of their sentence before they are eligible for parole. HB 2472 allows prosecutors to file a charge as a misdemeanor rather than a felony so long as the charge is not listed as an 85% crime.
  • HB 2751 raises the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000.
  • HB 2753 expands eligibility for drug courts in lieu of incarceration for any offender that has been assessed and recommended. Prior to the passing of HB 2753, offenders were only eligible for drug courts if they had one prior felony.

As of 2014, over half of Oklahoma’s incarcerated offenders were serving sentences for nonviolent crimes—indicative of a state proliferated by the “tough on crime” policies of the past. Harsh laws have skyrocketed Oklahoma’s incarceration rate to number two in the nation, just behind Louisiana, and a prison system that is operating at 122% capacity. Consequently, the rooms originally intended for job training or other educational services have been sacrificed to make room for additional beds. Like Oklahoma, many states across the nation have compromised rehabilitative programs within prisons to house more prisoners, despite research that suggests deterrence alone is ineffective.

While the recent reforms indicate that Oklahoma is beginning to unite with the rest of the nation in addressing over-incarceration and high corrections budgets, there’s still more to be done.

For example, possessing certain quantities of drugs still comes with a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence in Oklahoma, 85% of which must be served before becoming eligible for parole. These 85% requirements also pertain to habitual offenders and offenders caught near public housing or schools. Research indicates that there is no deterrent effect associated with longer periods of time served, and cutting back on these requirements would yield significant cost savings.

As Oklahoma joins the majority of the nation in modestly moving forward with criminal justice reform, it is important to remember that being “smart on crime” is not akin to being “soft of crime”. “Smart on Crime” reforms insure that the tax dollars funding our prison systems are used effectively, that judges have the discretion to use the individual details of each case when sentencing, and that the safety of surrounding communities is never compromised.

Erinn Broadus is the Spring 2016 Criminal Justice Reform Policy Intern.