Property crime decreased in Oklahoma as SQ 780 reduced punishments

Before 2016, stealing a smartphone in Oklahoma could be charged as a felony with the possibility of prison time. The passage of SQ 780 raised the felony theft threshold in Oklahoma from $500 to $1000, meaning a person has to steal something worth more than $1000 to be charged with felony larceny.  

These changes went into effect in July 2017, and the early returns are very encouraging: statewide reports of theft fell in Oklahoma between 2016 and 2017. After SQ 780 reduced minor property crimes to misdemeanors, rates of theft continued to fall. Lower crime numbers, coupled with the sharp decline in felony filings strongly support the idea that smart justice reform can lead to both less crime and less punishment. These positive trends should help to sustain justice reform efforts as Oklahoma works to reduce its world-leading incarceration rate.  

There are better ways to curb petty theft than a felony sentence

Opponents of recent Oklahoma justice reforms argued that criminality and theft would rise if Oklahoma’s felony theft amount was lowered. The data shows that the opposite has occurred. There were 3,443 fewer reports of larceny in 2017 than 2016. Felony cases involving property crime this year are also down 29 percent from 2017. SQ 780 is only gradually beginning to alter prison admission rates, but these early results are promising. The larceny rate has continued to fall even after Oklahoma turned petty theft from a felony to a misdemeanor.

It’s hard to argue that low level thieves and shoplifters are a serious threat to public safety, but prior to recent reforms, nonviolent property crime was a major driver of incarceration in this state. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of individuals entering the Oklahoma prison system for property offenses grew by 29 percent. Research shows that these harsh punishments do little to deter crime, and a low level offenders’ felony conviction carries lifelong consequences which can often lead to higher rates of recidivism. There is little evidence that more stringent criminal sentences promote public safety.

[pullquote]”Lower crime numbers, coupled with the sharp decline in felony filings strongly support the idea that smart justice reform can lead to both less crime and less punishment.”[/pullquote]

Studies also show that the type of investments in substance abuse and mental health treatment envisioned by SQ 780 and SQ 781 have a proven effect on crime. A 10 percent increase in the substance abuse treatment rate reduces robbery and larceny theft rates by about 3 percent on average. Less punitive criminal penalties, economic development, education, and investments in mental health and substance abuse treatment all lead to better outcomes than so called “Tough on Crime” laws.

Smart justice reform is compatible with public safety

Reducing the criminal penalty for low level theft has become a common part of justice reform efforts across the nation. Thirty-nine states have raised their felony theft threshold since 2000, and whether a state sets its felony theft amount at $500, $1,000, or $2,000, there seems to be no significant effect on property crime and larceny rates. Florida’s felony theft threshold is remarkably low, for example. It’s a felony to steal money or goods whose value exceeds $300, but the state’s property crime and larceny rates are considerably higher than those in Pennsylvania, where the threshold is $2,000. Texas has a felony threshold of $2,500, which is more than double Oklahoma’s, but Oklahoma and Texas had similar rates of criminal larceny in 2016. The broad goal of criminal justice reform in many of these states has been to reserve incarceration, the most expensive remedy of our criminal justice system, for only the most dangerous offenders. Raising these dollar amounts to account for inflation doesn’t increase crime, but it does decrease the punitive effect of felony sentences and increase the basic fairness of the system.

Oklahoma must continue doing what works

Criminality seems to be driven by a lack of access to education, mental health services, and employment, and having a felony conviction makes each of these deficits more likely.  The numbers tell a clear story. Reports of theft are falling at the same time that our system has grown less punitive. Felony property crime filings declined 40 percent in Oklahoma between 2016 and 2018.  We should not ignore these facts. Evidence based justice should force us to reject the harsh sentences and threat based methodologies of the recent past. Theft is often driven by need, and a smart justice system should acknowledge these issues. It shouldn’t make them worse.


Damion served as the criminal justice policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute from July 2018 until June 2022. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

5 thoughts on “Property crime decreased in Oklahoma as SQ 780 reduced punishments

  1. My grandson was 17 and committed a felony. His 1st offense,discharging a firearm from a vehicle. He was given 20yrs with 9 suspended. He was a 17 year old that made a bad choice, but locking him in prison for that long is not the answer. I am so scared as time goes on, he will give up and get institionalized and become a career criminal. He made a mistake that will haunt him the rest of his life. Imho, he didn’t think the consequences of his actions. He is 20 now and realizes prison is no place for a person to be.I think 1st time offenders that young should not be given that much time. He deserved punishment but not because the DA wanted to make an example out of him. Even the mental evaluation done for the court, recommended he not be sent to prison. Please help us people with similar cases.

  2. People need to look at the phone’s that’s putting everyone in prison. For example possession is now a misdemeanor. That’s not gonna stop the District Attorney’s from convicting people. They will now have possession w/intent. Guarantee already seeing it.It’s not the charges,or the statues, it’s the one’s that are deciding indictment and guilt. And it’s all connected to prison for profit.It is not gonna stop until Oklahoma gets rid of the private prisons. In their contract with DOC it says they have to keep them 98% capacity.

  3. Making a crime no longer a crime causes people to not report it. It does not stop crime. The tail is wagging the dog. Why not change the obesity rules to 500 pounds for any height? Bam! No one is obese any longer. This is skewed reporting and should not be allowed.

  4. Mr. Shade, I encourage you to ride-along with a municipal officer or county deputy several times; in the same patrol area if you can. I think it will be an eye-opening experience for you and it will help you understand the numbers your reporting. What’s interesting about your article is you’re suggesting that there is an overall improvement in OK based on fewer ‘reported’ felony crimes. I hope your readers, like ‘Vic’, understand that the criminal acts have not decreased; instead it is the victims that are now limited in how they can report offenses by perpetrators. The benefit of decreased punishment is only felt by the criminal, which I understand is your desire because of the life-long consequences related to a felony conviction. But most criminals don’t care about those consequences. Which makes your final statement laughable- “Theft is often driven by need…” The context of your statement is that thieves are desperate and without any resources to live another day without stealing from others. Really? Third world problems in our first world? Get out from behind the numbers and see the ‘needs’ these repeat offenders are fulfilling; I can guarantee the most common need is goods or money to sell or exchange for drugs. Maybe we should decrease the punishment for highly addictive drugs? That will alleviate the addictive nature of ‘meth’ a heroin and deter prospective users, right? Wait, we already did that. Let’s just make drugs legal. Wait, we’re in the process of doing that too. Pretty soon we won’t have any problems if we decrease the ability to hold people accountable for their actions; what a perfect world that will be.

    Your jab at a ‘smart justice system’ not acknowledging the societal problems in our state is not taken lightly. I can assure you that officers, deputies, district attorneys and judges do not perform their duties in order to make issues ‘worse’ for any of our citizens. We merely operate within our authority, as outlined by federal, state and municipal laws. Those of us that work at the street level understand the difference between holding someone accountable when they are committing an offense based on genuine ‘needs’ or acting out in a way that victimizes an innocent person based on unnecessary ‘needs’. Members of the justice system aren’t as blind as you think to legitimate problems that our citizens face day to day. Quite often we are the first one to give assistance and aid; instead of handcuffs and a ride to the local jail.

    But you’ll never understand that or eliminate the issues you feel so strongly about if all you see is the numbers.

  5. My brother who is serving a 37 to life sentence sits in a prison cell right now fighting for his life as well as his life after being convicted for multiple counts of drug trafficking and possession.During his trial no one testified on him and said he had drugs or possess drugs or even sold drugs the police who testified stated otherwise that he never saw my brother with drugs he never heard or saw my brother sale drugs nothing of that nature they even had the house under survelliance and saw my brother one time at the house standing on the porch talking to someone inside the house though he never went inside the house the police couldn’t testify to what date and time this occuried.My brother is lost and confused on how he received a life sentence and or a prison sentence when he wasn’t no where around when the police sent the informant to buy drugs and or they raided the house.The house was not my brothers but he did own cars in the back of the premises where he fixed and got cars ready to resale the morale of this story is Oklahoma locked my bro up for life and he never sold or used drugs a day in his life.

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