Pass common sense sentencing reforms now (Guest post: Sean Wallace)

Sean Wallace
Sean Wallace

Sean Wallace is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, an association representing employees of the Department of Corrections.

During her 2015 inaugural address, Governor Mary Fallin told the crowd assembled on the Capitol steps that one of the three areas Oklahoma “must improve or risk stifling our forward momentum” was “over-incarceration.” She went on to say that “year after year another issue that holds back our state, breaks apart our families and leads to poverty is crime and incarceration.”  

The Governor deserves credit for saying that Oklahoma locks up too many of its citizens because too few elected officials are willing to say that.  To do so is to risk being called “liberal” or “soft on crime.”

Over-incarceration has become an en vogue topic for conservatives, and has even led to successful prison reform efforts in red states like Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina. Staunch conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Rand Paul now refer to budget-busting prison spending as a sign of big government encroaching on the lives of private citizens.

Oklahoma has held the dubious distinction of incarcerating more of its citizens than just about anywhere in the world for a long time, and lawmakers have spent considerable time and taxpayer dollars looking for reasons why.  Unfortunately for them, the studies always tell lawmakers to do the one thing they’ve never had the political courage to do, which is reform the state’s criminal sentencing laws. 

Oklahoma is facing a budget shortfall this year nearing half a billion dollars, or about the same amount it costs to manage the Department of Corrections each year.  Corrections employees are pleading for adequate funding to hire and retain the staff they need to manage the prisons safely. More Oklahomans are locked up in Oklahoma’s prisons than ever in our history, and that number just continues to increase year after year.  It’s time for lawmakers to take action.  There are multiple opportunities for them to do so.  

Conservative prison reformers, judges and defense attorneys agree that judges should have discretion when sentencing offenders.  Senate Bill 184 would allow for probation for certain non-violent felons with multiple convictions.  Under Senate Bill 211, the maximum sentence for an offender committing a non-violent crime within ten years of a previous conviction would be 20 years instead of life. 

House Bill 1117 and Senate Bill 112 allow offenders serving time for “85 percent crimes” to earn good behavior credits, so that once they’ve completed 85 percent of their sentence, those credits can shorten the remainder of the time they must serve.  The bill is strongly supported by corrections employees because they feel these credits provide a strong incentive for this growing segment of inmates to behave while incarcerated. 

Senate Bill 580 creates a special parole docket for elderly and terminally ill inmates, who could potentially be released to community supervision, saving the State millions in medical costs and freeing up expensive prison beds. 

House Bill 1518 creates the Justice Safety Valve Act.  This bill, championed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, would allow courts to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences when they are not in the interest of justice and doing so would not endanger the public. The bill has several limitations, including not allowing a court to waive mandatory minimums for sex offenders or those who committed their crime with actual, or the threat of, serious physical violence.

House Bill 1574 reforms a part of Oklahoma law that requires certain non-violent drug offenders to receive life without parole sentences.  According to a report by the ACLU, at least 49 Oklahomans will die behind bars for committing non-violent crimes. Rep. Williams’ legislation would change the mandatory life without parole sentence to one that has a range of punishment from 20 years to life.

None of these bills provide for the immediate discharge of inmates or would threaten public safety, but a federal takeover of our prisons or continued inaction on this crisis could.  It’s time for Oklahoma to do the right thing, which fortunately happens to be the least expensive for the taxpayer: pass common sense sentencing reform laws now.


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9 thoughts on “Pass common sense sentencing reforms now (Guest post: Sean Wallace)

  1. I strongly encourage the passing of these bills! The prisons are so over crowded. I personally fight for the freedom of Kevin Ott and the other nonviolent drug offenders seving life sentences and life without parole. These inmates need another chance at life.

  2. How is a prisoner looked at by those deciding his/her release? Does the “crime” decide whether the individual is violent or non-violent; OR does the consistent behavior of the individual over a several year period determine whether the individual is violent or non-violent?

    Is it consistent with human nature for any of us to have an angry moment, an irrational moment or even a violent moment?

    Is consistent behavior patterns taken into account in any decisions made for parole or commutation?

  3. Something has to be done and soon. It seems the state does a lot of talking and not a lot of doing. If Oklahoma doesn’t do something soon, there will be more people “in” than “out” of jail. They need to utilize the parole system in a way that it was intended…to release those who have earned the right to a second chance in life. Keeping them inside is doing the state and the inmates a huge injustice.

  4. While Ms. Tonya and I agree that passing these bills is a start, I think there should be way more. As a member of LEAP, legalized drugs would be more of a benefit in the long run if they were treated like alcohol and tobacco are. Taxed and regulated in a similar manner. Then it would still be illegal for people to drive while under the influence or while high, but at the same time you make money off the legal taxes as well as save money by not locking people away for lwop and by being able to let those in go free. Also need to address the issue of inadequate medical care for inmates by building an actual medical facility just for the dept. as opposed to needing outside medical care for any issue that may arise. As it stands the DOC is in major violation of Battle vs Anderson, due to the lack of adequate medical care, inadequate food, and improper housing for inmates. All the facilities are over populated, which with the DOC being under funded and under staffed makes it a cooking pot for all kinds of issues from violence to more officers quitting every day. At my facility we have open dorm bunks in a dayroom, which has been causing major problems. There is more to say on the matter but the “spokesperson” for the department has no clue how bad things truly are. If you want to know, go see for yourself how bad things are.

  5. I would like to see non violent felons be able to get a job after they serve their time. A person who goes to prison and pays their debt should not have to keep paying. People who have made bad decisions should not have to pay for the rest of their life by not being able to hold a decent paying job. That creates a cycle of reincarceration.

  6. What about blind plea sentences where the judge has given concurrent sentences that total more than life (25 years)? This happens more than you would think. Many non violent offenders have chosen blind pleas in hopes to get a lower sentence when instead sentences are not only higher but run concurrently instead of consecutively.



  9. I completely agree with DYABLO how in the world will this help the 85% mandatory sentence if they still have to serve the 85%?????? Are we missing something????

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