Reopening window of opportunity for justice reform (Capitol Update)

It goes without saying that in a democracy, significant change in public policy happens slowly. That’s why, when the legislature gets a chance to pass something, it’s best not to miss the opportunity. The tide of events can turn, and another opportunity may be a long time in coming. It’s difficult to maintain momentum on important change issues. 

A good example is sentencing reform. In 2018, while there was an impetus for criminal justice reform, legislators created the Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council to recommend a reorganization of sentencing statutes with appropriate penalties. The Council, weighted toward law enforcement, failed to finish its work in 2019 or 2020. Finally, three years later in 2021, the Council issued its recommendations. Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, introduced Senate Bill 1646 adopting some of the reforms, and Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, introduced SB 1590, a competing bill. 

Both bills died last week when they failed to get a committee hearing in the House before the committee deadline. It’s not a surprise. The legislative consensus seems to be that, with the perception of crime rates being up, sentencing reform is too hot to handle, especially in an election year. In a flush oil economy, the momentum has shifted to other topics like tax cuts and culture war issues. One must wonder when criminal justice reform will again gain traction. In the 24-hour news cycle people can repeatedly see the same “smash and grab” jewelry store robbery in Los Angeles and assume that crime is rampant everywhere. 

In the latest FBI yearly crime statistics report released in September 2021, the Bureau reported that “for the first time in four years, the estimated number of violent crimes in the nation increased when compared with the previous year’s statistics” and cited a more than five percent rise in violent crime. In 2019, the rate of violent crime was an estimated 380.8 offenses per 100,000 people compared to a rate of 398.5 offenses per 100,000 people in 2020. 

The increase in 2020 however, is part of a fluctuating but larger downward trend over the past 30 years. The rate of violent crime in 1990 in the United States, for example, was an estimated 729.6 offenses per 100,000. Moreover, property crime has continued to trend downward. In 1990, the rate of property crime was 5,073.1 per 100,000. In 2020, the Bureau reported 1958.2 property crimes per 100,000 Americans.

Interestingly, Oklahoma, which relies more heavily on incarceration than nearly every other state, is less safe from violent crime than the national average. Our 2020 violent crime rate is 458.6 per 100,000 compared with the national average of 398.5 per 100,000. California, New York, and Illinois, which we think of as high crime states, are below our 458.6 at 363.8, 363.8 and 425.9 per 100,000 population, respectively. It seems clear our insistence on incarcerating people at about twice the national average is not working for us. Sentencing reform is part of the answer. Criminal justice reform advocates should be ready when the next opportunity for sentencing reform presents itself. Hopefully, that will be soon. 


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.

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