Criminal Justice

Ray Carter | March 24, 2022

Sentencing reform clears Oklahoma Senate

Ray Carter

Legislation updating Oklahoma’s sentencing code has won easy passage in the Oklahoma Senate.

Senate Bill 1646, by state Sen. Dave Rader, creates the Oklahoma Crime Reclassification Act of 2022. The legislation attempts to impose comparable sentences on comparable nonviolent crimes.

“When this is all said and done, (Senate Bill) 1646 is a modest proposal,” Rader said. “It is going to reduce the average sentence by six months. It is going to reduce the average sentence by six months, and in 10 years have the equivalency of 960 fewer prisoners. So it is a modest change in our sentencing.”

Even with that modest shift, however, Rader said the legislation would gradually free up more money to spend on diversion programs and rehabilitation programs so state officials can “see if we can take some of the tax-gatherers that are in our incarceration facilities and make them taxpayers once again. That’s one of the goals of doing this.”

An analysis has indicated the legislation will eventually reduce Oklahoma’s prison costs by $16.8 million.

Because existing sentencing law was passed piecemeal over many years, the process has gradually resulted in a system where Oklahoma’s current sentencing structure often imposes longer sentences than what is the norm in many other states. Although Oklahoma ranks 16th highest in prison admissions, Rader noted the state ranks third highest for incarceration. He noted that states imposing shorter sentences do not have higher crime rates.

The most violent crimes—those requiring convicts to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, such as murder—are not touched by the bill.

The sentencing structure provided through SB 1646 is similar to that used in 36 other states.

Opponents worried the legislation would unintentionally lead to increased crime.

State Sen. Darrell Weaver, a Moore Republican who previously served as director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, said, “We’re on the brink of abandoning the victim.”

State Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, said other states have revised their sentencing codes in ways that proved counterproductive.

“We do have a crystal ball on what this kind of language does,” Murdock said. “We have a crystal ball. It’s called California. It’s called Chicago. It’s called New York. We can look at these kinds of policies and the effects of these policies.”

But Rader said SB 1646 ensures that crimes continue to be prosecuted.

“This is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Rader said. “When we talk about the victims, 1646 always remembers the victim because we are still going to prosecute. We’re still going to have DAs (district attorneys) doing their very fine work. The victim’s not forgotten. The victim will have justice.”

SB 1646 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 35-12 vote. It now proceeds to the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

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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