A look at criminal justice sentencing reclassification efforts this session (Capitol Update)

It looks like the criminal justice reform effort to reorganize the Oklahoma Criminal Code by arranging various crimes into classes with an appropriate range of punishment for each class has begun to fall on hard times already. The reorganization effort is the product of a report by the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council created in 2018 by Senate Bill 1098. Legislators did not want to make a mistake in reforming the sentencing system and the Council was their effort to create an informed approach. The Council began its three-year effort in 2019. 

Statutory instructions to the Council were to classify all felonies into appropriate categories with appropriate sentence lengths for each class, including enhanced sentences for former offenders, and to recommend other appropriate changes to improve the criminal justice system in Oklahoma and ensure public safety. In addition, the statute provided the recommendations of the Council shall be intended to reduce or hold neutral the prison population.

The 22-member council was heavily weighted with law enforcement, including the attorney general, two district attorneys, two chiefs of police, two county sheriffs, the director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, and other criminal justice agencies including the Director of the Department of Corrections and the Executive Director of the Pardon and Parole Board. The law enforcement perspective was balanced with only the director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System and a public defender. The remaining nine members — including the governor, legislative leaders, business leaders, state agency directors, and a retired judge — might be considered neutral, depending on the background and perspective of the individual appointee.

When the Council’s report was published, a third-party analysis by a national organization advocating for reform found the recommendations would increase the prison population rather than reducing it or holding it neutral. The primary cause was a recommendation for mandatory prison time without possibility of parole not now required for certain crimes. Local reform advocates objected to those provisions. Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, introduced SB 1646, which included the classification recommendations of the Council including their sentencing recommendations, but not the mandatory no-parole prison time. 

When SB 1646 was heard last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, criticized the measure based on several reductions in ranges of punishment that were recommended by the Council. The District Attorneys Council circulated written opposition to the bill. Some Senators on the committee expressed their strong opposition to the bill as it stands but said they would vote the bill out of committee based on their profound respect for Sen. Rader and trusting his willingness to make changes as it moves forward. They warned, however, they would vote against the measure on the floor unless substantial changes were made. In the end, only Sen. Weaver voted against moving the bill forward, but the comments from others indicated the bill has a steep hill to climb. It now goes to the Appropriations Committee. 

Sen. Weaver, a former Director of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, introduced a competing reclassification bill, SB 1590, which adopts the classification of crimes recommended by the Council but leaves all the penalties as they currently exist. Sen. Weaver said the purpose of his bill was to create a framework to change the penalties on a piecemeal basis at some future time. He believes reorganizing and changing all the penalties all at one time is too massive an effort which will lead to mistakes that will endanger the public. On the other hand, SB 1590 simply assigns crimes to certain classifications but leaves the classifications somewhat meaningless because individual crimes in the classification may continue to have widely divergent penalties. In the end, the classifications change nothing until the legislature acts at some future date to conform the penalties within the class. SB 1590 passed unanimously with little discussion. 

On a positive note, Senators Rader and Weaver are representing the various points of view in good faith, and both seem willing to make the effort to get a good bill. And it’s early in the session. Unfortunately, we could be headed toward baby steps. The problem with baby steps in reform is they often tend to be the only reform steps taken for a generation. The impetus for reform weakens, people move on to other issues, and the status quo remains.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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