Efforts to reclassify state’s criminal code maybe getting traction (Capitol Update)

With the filing last week of a conference committee substitute for House Bill 1792 by Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, and Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, it looks like the six-year effort to organize the Oklahoma Criminal Code into classes of offenses with a rational set of penalties for each classification may finally be getting traction.

The effort began in 2018 with passage of Senate Bill 1098 by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-OKC, and Rep. Ron Worthen, R-Lawton.

SB 1098 created the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council and directed it to classify all felonies into categories with appropriate ranges of punishment calculated to reduce or hold neutral the Oklahoma prison population. After three years, the council – heavily weighted with law enforcement – issued a report in 2021. But 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.

Sen. Rader and Rep. Osburn introduced SB 1646 in 2022 partially adopting the Council’s recommendations, but the bill failed to receive a hearing in the House. The two legislators decided to start the bill in the House in 2023 with the introduction of HB 1792. The bill passed the House and the Senate in 2023 with the title and enacting clauses stricken and was sent to conference.

Negotiations between representatives of law enforcement, primarily the district attorneys, and reform advocates continued up until the conference committee substitute was filed last Thursday. The bill creates 15 categories of offenses beginning with Class Y, which is murder in the first degree. The remaining are Classes A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3, B4, B5, B6, C1, C2, D1, D2 and D3.

Classes A1, A2 and A3 are groupings that together include 57 primarily violent felonies including acts causing or intending to cause death, serious injury to any person or sexual abuse of children, and other violent offenses each carrying lengthy terms of imprisonment up to and including life.

Classes B1 through B6 are 239 felony offenses arranged into six groups, according to the seriousness of the offense, that range from murder second degree which carries a sentence 10 years to life to Failure to Register under the Sex Offenders Registration Act that carries up to five years imprisonment.

Classes C1 and C2 are 182 felonies that include financial crimes or crimes causing unintended injury or potential injury. Classes D1, D2 and D3 are groupings of 690 lesser felony offenses.

The negotiators were unable to agree on ranges of punishment for the more serious offenses, Classes A1 through B6, so that will await another day. Those offenses are arranged into categories, but the current penalties will remain in law. However, they did agree on penalties for the lesser offenses.

With certain exceptions, penalties for the 24 offenses in Class C1, will carry up to eight years with a provision that 25 percent of a sentence of incarceration must be served before release. The penalty for a person with one or two previous convictions of a Class C or D felony who commits a Class C1 felony is two to 12 years with 25 percent of the incarceration required to be served. The range for a person previously convicted of three Class C or D offenses or one or more Class Y, A or B offenses will be 2 to 30 years for conviction of a Class C1 offense with 50 percent required to be served before release.

With certain exceptions, the penalty for the 158 offenses in Class C2 is up to 7 years with 20 percent required to be served before release. There are also enhanced penalties for previous offenders.

The penalty for the 352 Class D1 felonies is up to five years imprisonment with 20 percent required to be served before release, also with enhanced penalties for previous offenders. The penalty for the 21 Class D2 offenses is up to 2 years with 20 percent required and certain enhancement for previous offenders. Finally, the penalty for the 217 Class D3 felonies is up to two years with 10 percent of the sentence required to be served before release and certain enhancement penalties for previous offenders.

Deferred and suspended sentences will still apply in cases where these alternatives are allowed by law.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to the conference committee substitute which represents years of work, primarily through private negotiations. Undoubtedly, those working on the proposal have calculations that should project the estimated result on the prison population.

As with any reform, some of the provisions will likely be controversial. And a lot of the difficult work is yet to be done in arriving at penalties for offenses in Classes A1 through B6. The authors have recognized this by providing an effective date for the new law of January 1, 2026, which will allow for another legislative session before the bill goes into effect.

Providing more realistic guidelines for sentencing, which is lacking in Oklahoma, should provide a meaningful, measurable effect on Oklahoma’s overuse of incarceration. HB 1792, if it passes, could mark a starting point. Hopefully, this first step will provide momentum for further progress.


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.