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Long Story Short: Oklahoma lawmakers seek tougher shoplifting, domestic abuse penalties

Oklahoma Watch, April 10, 2024

Proposals cracking down on retail theft and domestic violence have momentum at the state Capitol.

Several reform measures have also advanced at the Legislature’s unofficial halfway point, though ambitious efforts to mandate pretrial data collection statewide and impose a death penalty moratorium were not heard on the full House or Senate floor and are effectively dead.

Oklahoma’s prison population is down 15% since March 2019 but has increased in recent yearsas the justice system fully recovers from COVID-19 pandemic delays. Criminal justice reform advocates fear efforts to require more prison time for certain offenses and roll back parts of State Question 780 could cause the prison population to keep trending up.

With nine weeks left in the 2024 legislative session, here’s a look at where criminal justice bills stand:

Anti-Shoplifting Bill Rolls Back State Question 780

Citing an uptick in retail crime, lawmakers have advanced two bills that would enable prosecutors to file more felony shoplifting charges.

House Bill 3694 by John George, R-Newalla, lowers the felony threshold for shoplifting offenses from $1,000 to $500. That’s a partial reversal of State Question 780, the 2016 voter-approved criminal justice reform initiative that reclassified several drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

Senate Bill 1450 by Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, increases the period during which prosecutors can aggregate multiple thefts from 90 days to one year. The change was recommended by the Oklahoma Organized Retail Crime Task Force, which began meeting in October.

Both measures cleared their chamber vote with overwhelming Republican support. Debating in favor of HB3694 on March 6, George said failing to act on the proposal would cause prices to rise and small businesses to shutter.

“I do agree we need to help people who want help, but we also need to protect our law-abiding citizens and businesses,” said George, a former Oklahoma City Police Department officer who led the OKC Fraternal Order of Police for several years.

Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, said the Legislature is moving backward in increasing criminal punishments and should instead focus on bolstering diversion and treatment programs.

“We’re creating a situation where our prison population is going to increase again,” Lowe said. “At one time our state had the highest incarceration rate in the nation for women. We don’t want to go back to that.”

George also claimed the state’s shoplifting rate tripled after State Question 780 took effect. While the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation’s crime statistics page shows a considerable increase over the six-year period, that’s because law enforcement agencies were transitioning to the agency’s current crime reporting system, OSBI Statistics Coordinator Kara Miller said. All agencies have transitioned to the National Incident-Based Reporting System as of January 2021.

Oklahoma law enforcement reported an incremental increase in shoplifting offenses after State Question 780 took effect in July 2017, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation statistics compiled prior to the January 2021 transition show. There were 15,231 shoplifting offenses reported in 2023, an 8.7% decrease from 2018.

Bills Seek More Prison Time for Domestic Abusers

Several bills would crack down on Oklahoma’s domestic violence rate, which consistently ranks among the top three in the nation and reached a 20-year high at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Senate Bill 1211 by Kristen Thompson, R-OKC, raises the maximum penalty for domestic abuse by strangulation from three to 10 years. Researchers have found strangulation can cause long-term injuries and trauma and is often a precursor to homicide. Despite that, it was not classified as a violent crime.

House Bill 3784 by George and Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, adds domestic assault upon an intimate partner or a family or household member with a deadly weapon to the list of crimes for which offenders must remain incarcerated for at least 85% of the sentence. The Oklahoma Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board recommended the change in its 2023 annual report, noting that the state’s criminal code is more lenient towards someone who assaults an intimate partner than a stranger.

More than 25,000 domestic abuse incidents were reported to Oklahoma law enforcement in 2022, according to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. Of those, 105 victims were murdered.

Some Reform Bills Advance

While significant justice reform efforts have not gained traction this session, several incremental changes remain before lawmakers.

House Joint Resolution 1053 by Regina Goodwin, D-Oklahoma City, would modify the state constitution to clarify that a tie clemency vote from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board in death penalty cases does not constitute a denial. The resolution proposes adding three alternate board members who could settle a tie if a full-time member recuses.

The resolution advanced through the House on a 90-3 vote last week. If approved by the Senate, the question would appear directly before voters, likely on the November general election ballot.

The resolution comes after the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 2-2 to deny Richard Glossip’s clemency recommendation last April. Former board member Richard Smotherman recused himself from the vote because his wife was a prosecutor on Glossip’s case.

Senate Bill 1470 by Treat would allow courts to consider the physical, sexual or psychological injuries a person endured as a mitigating circumstance. Offenses that require sex offender registration or carry the possibility of the death penalty are exempt.

The measure, known as the Oklahoma Domestic Violence Survivor’s Act, includes a retroactivity clause for those currently incarcerated. Among its advocates include April Wilkens, a Tulsa woman serving a life sentence for killing her ex-fiancé and alleged abuser Terry Carlton in 1998.

“Oklahoma’s legal system is structured to punish survivors who defend themselves,” said Tara Tyler, Executive Director of Ponca City’s Survivor Resource Network, in a statement after the bill cleared the Senate. “The Oklahoma Survivors Act is a beacon of hope for domestic abuse survivors across the state.”

Other reform bills up for consideration include:

Senate Bill 1663 by Todd Gollihare, R-Tulsa and Collin Duel, R-Guthrie: Allows a person to petition for early release from probation.

Senate Bill 1770 by Adam Pugh. R-Edmond and Nicole Miller, R-Edmond: Allows multiple expungement petitions to be consolidated into one file.

House Bill 3499 by Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City and Dave Rader, R-Tulsa: Specifies that affordable housing applicants cannot be denied tenancy based on their criminal record, with certain exceptions.

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

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