Adding penalties to felony reclassification efforts is vital (Capitol Update)

Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, for the second year, is trying to enact a felony criminal reclassification system based on recommendations by the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council. The proposal is contained in House Bill 1792 by Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond. The bill passed the House, weakened with the title stricken, and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with the enacting clause stricken last week. It now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee

The Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council was created in 2018 by Senate Bill 1098 authored by Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City. It was chaired by then-Attorney General Mike Hunter. SB 1098 instructed the Council to classify all felonies into appropriate categories with sentence lengths for each class, with an overall goal of reducing or holding neutral the prison population. Currently in Oklahoma, each separate offense has its own punishment assigned to it. The Council itself no longer exists, but its report recommended organizing the Oklahoma Criminal Code into 14 classifications of felonies with a range of punishment for each group of offenses.

Part of the problem Sen. Rader and Rep. Osburn face is the recommendations in the report are deemed not passable as written. Deciding which classification to put an offense in can be a cause for controversy for each offense. The report would lower some sentences that certain legislators disagree with. But a larger sticking point is a recommendation for mandatory minimum time in prison without possibility of parole when an offender receives a sentence of incarceration, beginning with 10 percent and going to 75 percent of the sentence, based on the classification of the offense. 

Lowering the current 85 percent crimes to 75 percent was immediately considered a non-starter politically. Conversely, mandatory minimum time in prison for offenses where it is not currently required is unacceptable for reform advocates. When the Council’s report was published, a third-party analysis by a national organization advocating for reform found the recommendations in the report would increase the prison population by 1,000 over a decade. A dueling study by the Department of Corrections said the population would be lowered by 900 over the decade. The DOC study was much narrower than the third-party study.

So far, HB 1792, this year’s reform effort, has yet to contain the ranges of punishment for each classification of offenses, which is the core of the reform. Simply organizing the offenses into groups without attaching the punishments does nothing substantive except, as some argue, make the criminal code a little easier to understand. This alone is hardly worth the effort. 

Sen. Rader told the Judiciary Committee the ranges of punishment are still being negotiated, as is presumably the mandatory minimum no-parole issue. He also said he would continue to work on the bill over the summer if an agreement was not reached this session. It’s an important, but thankless and so far, futile task.        


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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