Lawmakers must build on criminal justice reforms, not tear them down (Legislative Wrap-Up)

Oklahoma has seen major improvements in its criminal justice system over the past few years. These measures reduced incarceration and increased investment in diversion and reentry programs that keep our communities safe and improve outcomes for justice-involved people. While the Oklahoma Legislature passed some important measures in 2024, there were also disconcerting attempts to undo years of improvements. Some of these harmful measures were stopped, but many positive changes also failed to progress. If Oklahoma truly wants an effective criminal justice system, legislators must protect and build on the progress made over the years.

Shoplifting was in the spotlight

Lawmakers this session took aim at shoplifting, claiming a purported alarming spike in theft to justify a return to more punitive measures. These claims, however, are not backed up by data. In fact, data from the FBI and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) indicate that property crime rates have been falling consistently for over a decade. Much of this focus centered around organized retail theft. Senate Bill 1450 and SB 1172 carried language meant to crack down on organized retail theft. These bills would have applied harsher sentences to people engaged in organized theft. However, the definition of “organized retail theft” was so broad that low-level shoplifters would have been targeted more than organizers of such crime. SB 1450 would have also granted the state Attorney General the power to form an Organized Retail Crime Taskforce meant to investigate and prosecute organized retail theft. Neither of these two bills became law this session.

Lawmakers also continued efforts to roll back State Question 780, a landmark citizen-led state question that significantly reduced felonies for nonviolent drug and property crime offenses like shoplifting. SQ 780 raised the monetary threshold between some misdemeanor and felony theft charges from $500 to $1,000. Several pieces of legislation this year attempted to undo this change. House Bill 3694 by Rep. John George and Sen. Julie Daniels and SB 1450 by Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat and Rep. George would have lowered the threshold back to $500. Some of the authors claimed that this would reduce shoplifting. However, raising the felony theft threshold has not led to a rise in theft. In fact, Oklahoma’s property crime rate was falling before SQ 780, and it continued to fall after SQ 780 became law. The proposed rollbacks to SQ 780 would not have affected the shoplifting rate, but they would have increased Oklahoma’s incarceration rate. This increase would have taken away valuable savings for community mental health services funded through SQ 781, which directed the state to invest the money saved from SQ 780 into mental health services for Oklahoma’s communities.

Another year without fines and fees elimination

Unfortunately, there was no major fines and fees reform in the 2024 legislative session. These fees place huge barriers to reentry for justice-involved people, and they are also an unstable way to fund important public safety services. When these fees go unpaid, people can lose their driving privileges or even be arrested and incarcerated. Past reforms have addressed these issues and alleviated some pressure from justice-involved people who owe court debt. However, these measures only treat the symptoms of a broken system. Eliminating fees outright and fully funding the criminal justice system with stable revenue is the only way to truly solve the problem fees pose to individuals and the public safety system at large.

HB 3497 by Rep. Tammy West and Sen. Todd Gollihare would have eliminated the District Attorney (DA) Supervision fee, which is meant to fund DA offices to supervise people on probation. This bill died in the Senate. Implementing this bill would have cost the state $10 million to replace that funding but it did not make it to the governor, who has been a vocal proponent of fees and fine reform. Looking forward, legislators must prioritize investing in necessary criminal justice improvements by eliminating burdensome court and administrative fees for justice-involved Oklahomans.

Not all wins came easily

One of the most impactful bills to become law this year is SB 1835, commonly known as the Oklahoma Survivor’s Act, by Senate Pro Tem Treat and Rep. Jon Echols. The Oklahoma Survivor’s Act provides a process for victims of domestic abuse found guilty of a crime to receive a lesser sentence when their victimization was a significant factor in their offense. Sometimes, survivors of abuse harm or kill their abusers in self-defense, are coerced into committing a crime by their abuser, or undertake other survival strategies that become subject to prosecution. The Survivor’s Act is important because it will allow judges to offer a lesser sentence, considering the extreme circumstances that led to the commission of a crime. Advocates have been trying to pass the Survivor’s Act for years, and even sent SB 1470, another version of the Survivor’s Act, to the governor’s desk this year, where it was unfortunately vetoed. In response, SB 1835 passed both chambers with overwhelming support and received the governor’s signature. The Oklahoma Survivor’s Act will further reduce incarceration rates and help bring justice to families harmed by domestic violence: a model for future criminal justice reform efforts.

Another important win for justice-involved people came through HB 1629 by Rep. Regina Goodwin and Sen. George Young. Signed into law in May, this bill clarified that people regain their right to vote once they complete their felony sentence, even if that sentence was shortened through a commutation or pardon. This will help justice-involved people engage in their communities and use their voice to participate in our democracy.

Lawmakers must build on previous reform instead of tearing it down

As a state, we have started to move away from a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” philosophy and towards a system that considers the needs of individuals and communities. All Oklahomans, regardless of justice involvement, benefit from policies that ensure stable funding for public safety services, provide effective alternatives to incarceration, and invest in community mental health care. It is essential that the legislature, the governor, and policymakers across the board protect these reforms and continue to build on them. Measures that would roll back SQ 780 are not productive. Looking forward to 2025 and beyond, lawmakers should instead embrace policies like the Oklahoma Survivor’s Act to further reduce incarceration and prioritize eliminating justice-related fees to improve public safety in Oklahoma.


Cole Allen joined OK Policy as a Policy Fellow in August 2022. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a master’s degree in International Studies as well as a bachelor’s degree in International Studies with minors in Religious Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. During college, Cole was a research assistant at the Center for U.S.-China Issues and the Center for Cyber Governance and Policy. He also interned for the U.S. Department of State Diplomat in Residence for the Central United States. Cole hopes that his work at OK Policy will help make Oklahoma a more just and equitable state for all its residents. When he is not working, Cole enjoys cooking Italian food, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and following OU athletics.