Criminal Justice

Ray Carter | February 16, 2022

Sentencing reform advances, but lawmakers wary

Ray Carter

Legislation to address disparities in Oklahoma’s sentencing laws, and indirectly lower the incarceration rate, has advanced from a state Senate committee, but lawmakers expressed concern about the complexity of a broad-based overhaul.

Senate Bill 1646, by Sen. Dave Rader, creates the Oklahoma Crime Reclassification Act of 2022. The legislation classifies criminal felony offenses in various categories and caps the maximum allowable fines for each category.

Rader, R-Tulsa, said disparities in Oklahoma’s sentencing laws are the result of most penalties being set individually over the course of many years or decades without consideration for how other similar crimes are treated. Over time that has created many problems with the system that critics say have made Oklahoma a national leader in incarceration.

Rader noted Oklahoma ranks 16th-highest in prison admissions, but third-highest in incarceration, due in part to the state imposing longer sentences for many nonviolent crimes than what is the norm in most other states. Rader said Oklahoma’s incarceration rate for violent crimes ranks 22nd-highest in the country, but for nonviolent crimes the state ranks second-highest for incarceration.

Across the political spectrum, he noted there is agreement that Oklahoma’s sentencing laws need to be reformed.

“It may be the only bill that we’re going to run this year that has this type of substance that we have the right and left agreeing we need to reform our sentencing,” Rader said.

He said outside experts have estimated the legislation will reduce the average prison sentence in Oklahoma by about six months, and said that will have tremendous cumulative effect over time. Rader said the bill could reduce the state’s prison population by 1,000 individuals within 10 years.

Several lawmakers agreed that Oklahoma must address its sentencing code, although many expressed concerns about specific sentencing changes in the bill.

“We need to have these discussions because we can’t just continue to avoid it,” said Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus.

“This is an important issue, and one we need to tackle,” said Sen. James Leewright, R-Bristow. “And these open discussions are very important right now.”

“At the end of the day, we lock up more Oklahomans, citizens, than any of the modern industrialized places in the world,” said Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman. “If you compared Oklahoma to other nations, we’re still locking up more people, so that’s the foundation that has to be looked at.”

“Piecemealing has not worked,” said Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City. “Plugging holes has not worked.”

Although several lawmakers expressed concern about portions of the bill, all but one voted to advance it from committee and continue work on the measure. The lone opponent was Sen. Darrell Weaver, a Moore Republican who previously served as director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.

In debate, Weaver highlighted numerous changes in the bill that he said would allow criminals to evade significant prison sentences. Among other things, Weaver said prior acts of child endangerment, domestic abuse, or assault and battery on a police officer would not lead to an enhanced sentence under the bill and such crimes would face a maximum sentence of five years.

Weaver said the intent of the bill “is right,” but that there were too many problems with the measure.

“The house needs to be rebuilt,” Weaver said. “This is not the foundation to start with.”

Rader noted that Oklahoma lawmakers appropriated $544 million last year to fund the state prison system and house its roughly 22,000 inmates.

When Louisiana enacted similar sentencing reforms, he said that state’s prison population declined and $40 million in savings was generated within three years.

“Just think what we could do with the $40 million with the diversion, the rehab and the treatment programs with that savings,” Rader said.

SB 1646 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 9-1 vote.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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