Earlier this year, we wrote about a proposed bill that could have a significant impact on criminal sentencing in Oklahoma. We were excited about House Bill 1518, because, if passed, it would allow Oklahoma judges discretion in sentencing, even for convictions that carried mandatory minimum sentences. The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow judges to deviate from statutory mandatory minimums under certain conditions where the imposition of the minimum sentence would not be in the best interest of justice.
On Monday, Governor Mary Fallin signed the bill into law. It will take effect November 1, 2015.
Critics of the bill say that allowing judges to deviate from minimum sentencing would create too much leniency for convicted criminals, particularly for repeat offenders. However, as Rep. Pam Peterson, the bill's sponsor pointed out, the law does not require any judge to hand down a lighter sentence. It merely provides the option for judges to take a closer look at the offender, the offense, and whether or not justice would be served by the mandatory minimum.
Oklahoma has some of the toughest drug laws in the nation. Repeat drug offenders--even non-violent offenders--are often subject to long minimum sentences that do nothing to alleviate the source of the drug problem and instead may fuel recidivism. The state has one of the nation's highest incarceration rates, including the highest incarceration rate for women. In signing HB 1518, Governor Mary Fallin noted the state's high incarceration rate, saying, ". . . [O]ne in 11 Oklahomans serve time in prison at some point in their lives."
Rather than simply locking away nonviolent offenders based on a statutory formula that does not consider the offender or his or her chance for rehabilitation, a judge may now be able to include in his or her sentencing diversion programs that treat underlying substance abuse or mental health issues.
Not everyone may be excluded from mandatory minimum sentences at a judge's discretion, however. Judges may not deviate from mandatory minimums under the following circumstances:
- The person is convicted for an offense involving the use or threat of serious physical force or resulting in serious physical injury to another person.
- The person is convicted of a felony sex crime requiring sex offender registration.
- The person is convicted of a crime involving the use of a firearm to injure another person.
- The person has a prior conviction for the same offense within the previous 10 years.
- The person is the leader, manager, or supervisor of others in a continuing criminal enterprise.
In an era where "tough on crime" has a popular appeal, it can be refreshing to see lawmakers willing to concede that one-size-fits-all sentencing is not always appropriate