Don’t Believe the Hype: Recent justice reforms are working

Anecdotal stories about crime should not be the basis of policy, and Oklahoma should continue to pursue evidence-based criminal justice reform to reduce our state’s expensive incarceration crisis. In the last few years, Oklahoma voters have changed several low-level felonies to misdemeanors, and the Legislature raised the felony theft threshold— the dollar value that defines a theft as a felony — from $500 to $1,000. Data shows these reforms are working. This means fewer Oklahomans are going to prison for low-level theft.

At the same time, reports of property crime continue to decline. There was a 13 percent reduction in reported larcenies – the technical term for many types of theft, including shoplifting- between FY 2012 and FY 2018. This means there were more than 10,000 fewer reported larcenies in 2018 than 7 years ago. Contrary to recent anecdotal claims from local businesses, theft has been decreasing in Oklahoma for nearly a decade.

Harsh punishments don’t deter petty crime

Reducing the criminal penalty for low-level theft has become a common part of justice reform efforts across the US. Thirty-nine states, including Oklahoma, have raised their felony theft threshold between 2000 and 2018, and whether a state sets its felony theft amount at $500, $1,000, or $2,000 or more has no significant effect on property crime and larceny rates.

  • Texas raised its felony theft threshold in 2015, with no discernible impact on crime levels. Furthermore, Texas’s felony theft threshold now sits at  $2,500 — more than double Oklahoma’s —  yet Texas and Oklahoma’s property crime rates are roughly the same.
  • Missouri raised their felony theft threshold to $750 in 2014, and the chart below shows that this change also had no apparent impact on crime.

The evidence is clear: raising felony theft thresholds doesn’t change crime levels, but it does mean fewer people in prison.

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Oklahomans deserve evidence-based justice

This isn’t to say that convenience stores in Oklahoma aren’t seeing an increase in petty theft, but it’s much more likely that recent changes in Oklahoma’s liquor laws bear some responsibility. As the chart above shows, reports of property theft increased slightly following changes to Oklahoma liquor laws, but it was still only marginally higher than the standard seasonal increase that we see every summer. There were still 10,000 fewer larcenies reported in 2018 than in 2012. Oklahomans deserve justice reforms driven by evidence, not anecdote. We need public policy that is driven by facts and not the same outdated notions which helped make Oklahoma the prison capital of the world.


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.

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