SB 704 would be step towards reducing Oklahoma’s incarceration rate (Capitol Update)

Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, introduced Senate Bill 704 that will eliminate piling on more prison time for sentences in most non-violent felony cases when the defendant has a previous conviction. The law already provides a range of punishment for criminal offenses. For example, the punishment for embezzlement if the value of the property is $15,000 or more is up to eight years in prison. But under the current enhancement statute, if a defendant has a prior felony conviction for some other offense, the punishment becomes up to life imprisonment. SB 704 would eliminate the enhanced punishment and leave the penalty for the crime charged at up to eight years.

Oklahoma is among the top incarcerators in the nation at nearly twice the national average incarceration rate and spends over half a billion dollars per year on the Department of Corrections. During the week of February 8, 2021, there were 21,681 inmates in Oklahoma prison facilities and 1,009 in county jails awaiting transfer to prison. Part of the problem is lengthy sentences for non-violent offenses that do not make the state safer or the offender less likely to repeat offend.   

SB 704 is projected to reduce Oklahoma’s prison population by almost 1,400 people over the next 10 years and save the state at least $137 million, according to a fiscal analysis by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank. The study found sentence enhancements add, on average, 61 percent for people convicted of drug offenses and 47 percent for people convicted of property crimes. 

Sen. Rader is attempting to take a small step toward safely reducing Oklahoma’s over-incarceration rate, but he’s running into opposition. The bill passed out of the Senate Public Safety committee last week on a 7-4 vote, crippled with a stricken title. Part of the problem, which is politically understandable is that SQ 805, which was similar but not the same as SB 704, was overwhelmingly defeated last November. SB 704 addresses the issues opponents of SQ 805 said they had, namely that new law was being put into the constitution and that there were loopholes that might cause it to apply to some violent offenders. But the similarity of the two gives proponents of sentencing enhancements ammunition and legislators cause for concern that they might be perceived as overturning the will of the people. 

Maybe it’s the athletic background. I’m sure there have been plenty of times as a player and college football coach when Sen. Rader was in a tough situation, when the only thing he could do was plow ahead and wait for something good to happen. Sometimes those character traits stay parked on the athletic field and don’t transfer well to governing. In Sen. Rader’s case, he’s made good use of them in the State Senate. He’s trying to do something that needs to be done, but that is hard to do. Maybe something good will happen.


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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