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Senate Passes 8 Criminal Justice Reform Bills


In November, Oklahoma voters showed that criminal justice reform was a priority when they approved State Questions 780 and 781 to lessen the penalties for several drug and property crimes. There was some frustration this legislative session and former Rep. Ralph Shortey attempted to roll back 780 by increasing penalties for drug possession near a school or church. Ironically, Shortey was arrested and charged with three prostitution crimes involving a minor, including allegations of committing the act within 1000 feet of a church. 

Hot on the heels of Shortey's downfall, the Oklahoma Senate has voted to pass eight criminal justice reform bills with the intent of lowering the state's inmate population. 

A national policy institute reported that Oklahoma overcriminalizes behavior, which is a driving force between the state's notoriety of having the highest female incarceration rate and the second highest overall incarceration rate in the nation. This overcriminalization has led to the states prisons being at 107 percent capacity--and the local jails aren't faring any better.

If the prison population continues to grow at the rate it has been, Oklahoma is expected to need at least three new prisons within the next 10 years--at a cost of $1.9 billion, according to The Oklahoman. Clearly, with its continuing budget crisis, this is an unacceptable solution--one which not only costs the taxpayers nearly $2 billion, but also does nothing to address the issue of an inappropriate incarceration rate.

The eight bills passed by the Senate this week lessen the penalties for certain crimes and change the status of minor theft crimes from felony to misdemeanor:

  • Senate Bill 649 - distinguishes between violent and nonviolent offenders in determining sentencing enhancement for repeat offenses 
  • Senate Bill 650 - decreases wait time for record expungement of nonviolent offenders without subsequent offenses
  • Senate Bill 603 - requires individualized improvement plans for inmates for reintegration into society
  • Senate Bill 604 - provides law enforcement training for interactions with victims of domestic violence.
  • Senate Bill 609 - requires the state attorney general to develop a training and certification process for professional victim advocates.
  • Senate Bill 689 - gives judges and prosecutors more prison diversion programs to allow treatment and supervision rather than incarceration; . It reduces financial obstacles that prevent successful reintegration into society; expands the use of graduated sanctions and incentives to modify behavior.
  • Senate Bill 786 - establishes additional tiers for crimes of burglary with penalties that correlate with the value of stolen items.
  • Senate Bill 793 - establishes an oversight council to monitor criminal justice reforms.

These measures have passed the Senate, but have not yet been approved by the House. At least one bill will be returned to the Senate for final approval after it is voted on by the House.

The Senate isn't the only branch of the legislature concerned with criminal justice reform. The House recently passed HB 2281, which, as has been done with prior legislation, reduces the penalties for certain property crimes by tying penalties to the value of the property stolen.

We will continue to monitor these criminal justice reform bills as they progress through the legislative process. In the meantime, it seems as if the state is starting to take a smarter approach to criminal justice than it has taken in recent years.

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