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How a proposed felony classification system would affect justice in Oklahoma

Razor-wire fence surrounds the Davis Correctional Facility, a medium-security private prison in Holdenville. Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate has dropped 25% over the past five years, moving the state from first to third nationally in incarceration. Justice reform advocates say sentencing reform could help Oklahoma continue to reduce its prison population.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
Razor-wire fence surrounds the Davis Correctional Facility, a medium-security private prison in Holdenville. Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate has dropped 25% over the past five years, moving the state from first to third nationally in incarceration. Justice reform advocates say sentencing reform could help Oklahoma continue to reduce its prison population.

A 1,000-page proposal to overhaul Oklahoma’s criminal code and establish a felony classification system is progressing in the Legislature.

Senate Bill 1646 by Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, cleared the upper chamber by a 35-12 vote in late March. It’s eligible to be considered in the House, where Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, is carrying the bill.

Justice reform advocates say the classification effort presents an opportunity to reduce sentencing ranges for several offenses and divert more people from incarceration. Opponents argue the proposal is overly lenient on offenders and would cause crime rates to spike.

Here are some questions and answers about Senate Bill 1646.

How did we get here?

Efforts to modernize Oklahoma’s criminal code have been ongoing for years.

Most states, including neighboring Kansas and Texas, use a crime classification system. The organization can make it easier for the public, law enforcement and legislators to grasp the criminal code and punishments associated with certain crimes. States may also remove antiquated laws and modify sentencing ranges during the classification process.

Lawmakers in 2018 voted to create a Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council, comprised of 22 prosecutors, lawmakers, public defenders and a retired judge. The council, which met over three years, was directed to recommend reforms to Oklahoma’s criminal code that would maintain or reduce the state prison population.

The council released itsfinal report last year. Members proposed reducing time served requirements for violent crimes from 85 to 75% and implementing mandatory prison time for some offenses. A Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice research and advocacy organization called FWD.us projected that the council’s recommendations could increase the state prison population by 1,000 over a decade.

What does Senate Bill 1646 propose?

Every felony in state statute would be categorized by severity with common sentencing and enhancement ranges. For example, a class B3 felony would carry a sentence of 0-15 years for a first offense and 1-15 years for a second offense.

Senate Bill 1646 calls for reduced sentencing ranges for several crimes not subject to the 85% statute. Examples include:

  • Larceny of an automobile, first offense: reduced from 3-10 years to 0-7 years 
  • Burglary, second offense: reduced from 2 years-life to 0-8 years. 
  • Second-degree robbery, second offense: reduced from 10 years-life to 1-10 years 

Marilyn Davidson, director of the conservative justice reform organization Right on Crime Oklahoma, said the bill would help eliminate unusually long prison sentences. Oklahoma prisoners serve 79% longer for drug offenses than the national average and nearly 70% longer for property crimes, according to a 2020 analysis by FWD.us.

“It’s extremely common to see two people with the exact same crime, similar criminal backgrounds, be sentenced to widely different sentences,” Davidson said. “One will get five years and the other will get 20 years, with the only difference being that they were in different counties.”

Senate Bill 1646 adopts several of the council’s recommendations but differs in two key areas: Time served requirements for violent offenses remain at 85% and proposed mandatory prison time requirements for some nonviolent crimes are included.

Speaking on the Senate floor late last month, Rader said the classification proposal is a work in progress that lawmakers can fine-tune over time.

“Whatever concerns about where the level of crime is, we the legislature can change it if we so desire,” Rader, who was head coach of the University of Tulsa football team for 11 seasons, said. “If we don’t have this schedule, we’re just going to have this wide array of sentencing. We aren’t going to be able to communicate, we’re not going to have the certainty we want.”

Who supports the proposal, and why?

Numerous justice reform and policy organizations, including the Oklahoma Policy Insitute and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, have advocated for Senate Bill 1646.

They argue that the bill would modernize Oklahoma’s criminal code and allow courts to prioritize treatment over incarceration for certain offenders.

Who’s opposes the bill, and why?

Some Republican lawmakers believe the bill reduces too many sentencing ranges and would cause the state’s crime rate to creep up.

“We’re on the brink of abandoning the victim,” Sen. Darell Weaver, a Moore Republican who previously served as director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, said on the Senate floor. “The pendulum has swung.”

Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz, a member of the reclassification coordination council, said in an interview that the bill deviates too far from the body’s recommendations and doesn’t represent the interests of criminal justice stakeholders. The most significant omission, according to Ravitz, is a recommendation that time served requirements for some violent offenses be reduced from 85 to 75%.

Ravitz said he understands politicians being reluctant to appear soft on violent crime, but such reform is necessary to bring Oklahoma’s sentencing practices closer in line with other states.

“We agreed as a group that this was the best product for the state of Oklahoma,” Ravitz said. “Especially as it relates to not decreasing the 85% crimes, in my opinion, leaving that out is wrong. It doesn’t help the people of Oklahoma.”

Do harsher sentences reduce crime?

Most studies have found severe punishments don’t significantly deter crime.

The certainty of being caught and punished is a much more powerful deterrent than the threat of a long prison sentence, according to the National Institute of Justice.

How would it affect judges?

Judges would retain their authority to consider mitigating and aggravating circumstances during sentencing. Senate Bill 1646 does not eliminate habitual offender enhancements, as State Question 805 proposed for nonviolent crimes, though the measure calls for reduced maximum sentences for many crimes.

If enacted, would the state prison population decline?

Models predict the average prison sentence would drop by six months. This reduction would cause the state prison population to gradually decline over a decade, according to a report generated by Recidiviz, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that creates criminal justice data visualations.

Oklahoma’s prison population has decreased by more than 20% over the past three years, moving the state from first to third nationally in imprisonment rate. Researchers attribute the decline to justice reform efforts like State Question 780 and the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic on local justice systems.

What are the financial implications of the bill?

The state could save an estimated $16.8 million over a decade if Senate Bill 1646 becomes law, according to the Recidiviz report.

People moving through the justice system also stand to benefit, as the bill caps court fines based on the severity of the offense. For example, a B1 felony like child neglect would carry a maximum fine of $5,000. A person convicted of a lesser offense, such as the D3 felony of unauthorized use of a vehicle, would be required to pay at most $100.

Fine collection rates for most offenses are very low, so the reduction is unlikely to impact state court funding, Davidson said.

“The big question is, at what point do the fines become a deterrant and when do they become something that’s making it harder on that person who has served their sentence and is trying to move on with their life,” Davidson said. “That’s what we were really looking at in decreasing those fines and fees, because they’re not deterring crime and we’re not collecting on them.”

Restitution payments would not be impacted.

When would it take effect?

July 1, 2022.

Is the bill retroactive?

No. All sentences handed down before the bill takes effect would stand even if the sentencing range has changed.

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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