Fixing Oklahoma’s outdated criminal code could be a great step forward but policymakers should be wary of risks.

At the end of the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1098. This law created the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council — a group of 22 stakeholders from groups across the state with an interest in reforming Oklahoma’s outdated criminal code. The law mandates the Council makes changes to Oklahoma’s criminal code that “reduce or hold the prison population neutral.” A criminal code is all of the laws that describe criminal offenses, procedures, and court processes that govern anyone accused or convicted of a crime. Reform of the state’s criminal code is long overdue — as the code is a major driver of Oklahoma’s expensive incarceration crisis

If targeted correctly, this Reclassification Council could fundamentally transform Oklahoma’s justice system for the better. Policymakers should prioritize:

  •  Modernizing Oklahoma’s sentencing based on national best practices
  •  Eliminating mandatory minimums and fixing habitual offender laws
  •  Reforming legal eligibility for alternatives to incarceration. 

Modernizing Oklahoma’s criminal code will bring our sentencing in line with national best practices

The bill that created the Reclassification Council was designed to lower Oklahoma’s prison population and produce a system that is fundamentally more just. This process could remake Oklahoma’s courts for the better.

As the above graph shows, Oklahomans convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes serve far longer sentences than most of the rest of the nation, and there is no evidence that these longer sentences make Oklahoma safe. One of the most obvious ways to reduce Oklahoma’s prison population is to reform our state’s outdated sentencing practices. Crime rates have fallen 30 percent in Oklahoma and across the US since 2000. This crime reduction happened as 32 other states reduced punishments to numerous offenses while lowering their state’s incarcerated populations. These trends show that it is possible for a state to reduce prison sentences and still preserve public safety.

Long sentences produce diminishing returns for public safety as individuals “age out” of high-crime years. Such sentences are particularly ineffective for drug crimes. Drug sellers are easily replaced in the community and drug buyers often struggle with addiction. If the Reclassification Council embraces an evidence-based perspective they will reduce the sentences for Oklahoma criminal offenses to more closely resemble national averages. Such reforms are of particular benefit to traditionally marginalized low-income communities. Eliminating mandatory minimums and reforming habitual offender laws will follow positive national trends. 

The Oklahoma Reclassification Council should end the outdated practice of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and base Oklahoma’s criminal statutes on models that promote alternatives to incarceration and national best practices. A mandatory minimum requires that someone convicted of a particular crime must serve that time regardless of the facts of their case. In Oklahoma, one negative component of these statutes is habitual offender laws-also known as sentence enhancements. Habitual offender laws create longer predetermined sentences for repeat offenses. As with lengthy initial sentences, there is no evidence that these long sentences for repeat offense reduce crime. Studies suggest that these laws have been particularly harmful to communities of color and low-wage families. These laws also reduce judicial discretion to provide an alternative to prison for too many non-violent offenders. 

States like Louisiana and Texas have led the nation in reducing disparities created by these outdated sentencing practices. Louisiana reduced the punishments for repeat offenses in 2017, when the state reclassified it’s criminal code and made probation available for more repeat nonviolent offenses. Over the next decade, these Louisiana justice reforms are projected to reduce their prison and community supervision populations by 10 and 12 percent, respectively. Louisiana lawmakers have also committed to reinvesting 70 percent of the estimated $262 million savings in local programs that reduce reoffending and support crime victims. The Reclassification Council should aim for similar reductions to those incarcerated for repeat offenses. With the appropriate investment from legislators, more Oklahomans could find help and be diverted from prison altogether.

Using the criminal code to reform the court process would rely more on treatment and less on incarceration.

Oklahomans convicted of misdemeanor drug offenses are currently legally ineligible for drug courts. This legal prohibition limits treatment options and forces too many people struggling with addiction into a cycle of re-incarceration and arrest. Reforming Oklahoma’s criminal statutes could open prison diversion programs like drug courts and mental health courts to more people in crisis. Since the passage of State Question 780, some prosecutors in Oklahoma have argued that they have fewer tools to motivate defendants struggling with addiction to seek treatment. Though a meaningful investment in treatment from state lawmakers is the only long term solution to Oklahoma’s addiction crisis, making more Oklahomans legally eligible to these diversions would definitely be a profound step forward.

Oklahoma statute also limits eligibility for intensive supervision and some drug treatment programs to moderate- or high-risk offenders. States that reduce these restrictions have seen more success in treatment. The Reclassification Council should follow the example of other states and create space in the law for a larger treatment infrastructure for a wider spectrum of offenders. Again, these programs will require investment from the legislature, but changing these eligibility requirements will help provide law enforcement better tools than jail for people simply in need of help.

The Reclassification Council must avoid past mistakes to fulfill its mission

The bill that created the Reclassification Council was designed to lower Oklahoma’s prison population and produce a system that is fundamentally more just. This process could remake Oklahoma’s courts for the better. If the Council doesn’t remain focused on that mandate they could instead produce recommendations that make Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis worse. Proposals that increase sentence ranges for nonviolent crimes or which don’t lower barriers to probation or treatment are counterproductive to the Council’s mission. Oklahoma doesn’t have to be the “prison capital of the world.” Hopefully, the Council will use its enormous power to rewrite Oklahoma’s criminal statutes to create a court system that works better for all Oklahomans.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Damion joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in July of 2018 as the criminal justice policy analyst. 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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