During the last several decades, Oklahoma has incarcerated record-breaking numbers of people, sending more people to prison with longer sentences than the national average. That has started to change in recent years. Approved by voters in 2016, SQ 780 reclassified minor property crimes and simple drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors. This resulted in a 28.4 percent decrease in felony charges, according to Open Justice Oklahoma’s analysis. The same year that SQ 780 was approved, then-Gov. Mary Fallin issued an Executive Order to establish the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force to address the growing financial and community costs associated with incarceration. The reform task force developed reform recommendations that were introduced in 2017, several of which passed the following the following year — many in a modified form.
Among those reforms was SB 786, which reduced sentencing guidelines for many second-degree burglary charges by creating a less severe third-degree burglary category. Our analysis suggests that this reform resulted in a substantive decrease in second-degree burglary charges and fewer prison sentences in the months following its November 2018 implementation. As Oklahoma continues efforts to reduce our prison population, this analysis reinforces how legislative reform can create swift and durable change.
SB 786 brought burglary sentencing guidelines into line with other states
In 2017, second-degree burglary was one of the top 10 offenses for both men and women entering prisons with the average prison sentence for offenders as more than five years. To address the inconsistency and severity of second-degree burglary sentences, the task force recommended the addition of third-degree burglary for lower-level offenses, adjusting sentences, and reducing the harsh mandatory minimum sentence for both first- and second-degree burglary.
Other states often consider burglary of residences or commercial property more severe than the burglary of vehicles. In Oklahoma, however, these offenses were both categorized as second-degree burglary prior to SB 786. In fact, these vehicle burglary offenses actually led to more time served than burglary from residences or commercial properties, according to the task force’s final report. This reform was urgently needed to align Oklahoma’s burglary categorization and sentencing with neighboring states, which in turn supported the goal of reducing the number of people incarcerated in Oklahoma. .
SB 786 removed the two-year mandatory minimum sentence for second-degree burglary and left the maximum at seven years. The third-degree burglary charge for breaking and entering into a vehicle, trailer, or boat that the bill created carries a maximum sentence of five years with no mandatory minimum.
SB 786’s implementation immediately reduced second-degree burglary charges
After the third-degree burglary category became effective in November 2018, second-degree burglary charges decreased by about 26 cases per month, or roughly 28 percent, in the 13 counties* studied. Third-degree burglary cases have averaged about 22 per month in these counties after the new charge’s introduction. Accounting for seasonality, our regression model finds also variation in burglary cases by month, in line with existing literature on seasonal trends; summer months see higher rates of burglary than do winter months.
The data suggest that SB 786 downgraded a substantial number of second-degree burglary cases to less severe third-degree burglary cases; more than 300 cases per year in these 13 counties will now result in a maximum sentence of five years rather than seven years. This is especially important for courts that tend to hand down sentences at the high end of the sentencing range. These findings indicate that reform efforts are working to align our criminal justice system with national best practices.
Second-degree burglary prison sentences have also substantially declined
Because of the delay between court filing and sentencing, reductions in prison admissions always lag changes in sentencing. Even so, data on prison sentences for second-degree burglary bolster these findings. Our analysis shows that second-degree burglary sentences decreased by about four cases per month on average following the passage of SB 786, a 21 percent overall monthly decrease. (These data exclude the outlier months between March 2020 to present, as the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in court closures and delays.) This could indicate that courts responded to the removal of the two-year mandatory minimum sentence by diverting people convicted of second-degree burglary away from prison and into some form of community supervision.
These preliminary findings also encourage continued support for criminal justice reform legislation in Oklahoma. While monetary cost savings have not yet been established for the bill, the average prisoner costs Oklahomans $20,000 a year to incarcerate. The economic and community losses represented by the high numbers of incarcerated Oklahomans are too great for the state to continue to bear.
Sentencing reforms are crucial to sustaining and fortifying recent prison reductions
Oklahoma’s prison population has decreased rapidly during the last 18 months, due mainly to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board productivity and administrative reforms that have resulted in much shorter terms for people sentenced to prison. However, front-end reforms such as SB 786 have a substantial impact on reducing the flow of people into the criminal justice system. The implications of these findings are encouraging; progress is being made to reduce incarceration by lowering prison sentences and adjusting our charges more in line with neighboring states. As Oklahoma continues to search for ways to reduce its prison population, we should be encouraged that recent reforms are making measurable progress.
* We analyzed court records from 13 counties that have comprehensive records available on the Oklahoma State Courts Network: Adair, Canadian, Cleveland, Comanche, Ellis, Garfield, Logan, Oklahoma, Payne, Pushmataha, Roger Mills, Rogers, and Tulsa. Burglary cases were identified by the first charge listed. To view case-level data and our analysis methods, see our GitHub repository: https://github.com/openjusticeok/burglary-eval.
About the Author
Emily Mee served as an intern for Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of the Oklahoma Policy Institute team during summer 2020. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Master of Public Administration and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Affairs at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.