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Policy Institute: Oklahoma "Overcriminalizes" Behavior

19-Dec-2016

It likely comes as no surprise to anyone who has been involved in criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, but a recent study by a national policy organization is critical of the state for "overcriminalizing" behaviors.

The Manhattan Institute, out of New York, calls itself a "leading free-market think tank focusing on economic growth, education, energy and environment, health care, legal reform, public sector, race, and urban policy." In the field of legal reform, the group "studies civil litigation, overcriminalization, and corporate governance" to formulate policy solutions for a legal system they say is "eroded" by those who "manipulate legal rules to achieve policy objectives outside the normal bounds of legislative action and administrative rulemaking."

Last month, the group released the results of its study on Oklahoma. The report, entitled "Overcriminalizing the Sooner State: A Primer and Possible Reforms for Oklahoma," criticized the state's extensive criminal code and its punishment of people for relatively harmless behaviors.

The study's abstract reads as follows:

"Oklahoma residents face an array of criminally enforceable rules and regulations covering ordinary business and personal conduct. These rules often place individuals in legal jeopardy for unknowingly engaging in seemingly innocuous, but nonetheless illegal, conduct."

Key findings include the following:

  • Oklahoma’s criminal code contains 1,232 sections—compared with 114 in the Model Penal Code—and more than 272,000 words.
  • Oklahoma has created, on average, 26 crimes annually over the last six years; 91% of these fell outside the penal code.
  • Over the last six years, lawmakers have added crimes to 21 different statutory titles covering areas ranging from professions and occupations to schools. Many of these statutes also use regulatory catchall provisions.

The group made three main recommendations for addressing overcriminalization as part of Oklahoma justice reform efforts:

  1. Create a bipartisan legislative task force. Conduct hearings and set guiding principles for lawmakers when creating new criminal offenses, with an emphasis on organizing and clarifying criminal laws for state residents. 
  2. Create a commission to review the criminal law. Engage in a comprehensive review of the criminal law with the aim of consolidating, clarifying, and optimizing the state’s current criminal statutes and regulations. 
  3. Enact a default mens rea provision. Ensure that being convicted of a crime requires a showing of intent—unless the legislature clearly specifies otherwise.

Those involved in criminal justice reform in Oklahoma agree with the Institute's assessment and recommendations. Kris Steele,

Kris Steele, a former Republican House speaker and leader of the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform coalition, said,

"It's concerning that Oklahoma is so willing and apt to send people to prison or incarceration for so many offenses, especially when the research indicates that incarceration for many offense does not equate to a reduction in crime or an increase in public safety." He notes that the state has a tendency to make a bad situation worse by incarcerating low-level offenders and "warehousing that individual in a bad situation and placing a felony conviction — a scarlet letter — upon that individual."

It does appear that Oklahoma is trying to take a step in the right direction. The state recently passed new laws that would change some nonviolent felony crimes to misdemeanors and to allow prosecutors discretion in prosecuting certain felonies as misdemeanors under certain circumstances.

 

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