Among the roughly 200 new Oklahoma laws that will take effect on November 1, 2016, are a few dealing with the criminal justice system and criminal justice reform. One of those laws, which the Oklahoma legislature approved as House Bill 2751, is intended to lower the state prison population, which is bursting at the seem, by raising the threshold for certain property crimes to be designated as felonies.
Prior to the enactment of the new law, specified property crimes were prosecuted as misdemeanors if the value of stolen property or fraudulently appropriated property was less than $500, but these acts became felonies when the value increased to $500 or more. This felony threshold for felony prosecution was lower than in 37 other states, and despite inflation, the law and the value threshold had not changed since 2001.
Under existing law, a person could be convicted of a felony and sent to prison for stealing a cell phone or a laptop computer. Certainly, with Oklahoma's incarceration rates and prison population as high as they are, sending people to prison for minor, non-violent theft crimes does not seem to be in anyone's best interest--not the inmate, not the dependents left behind, not the short-staffed prison employees, and not the taxpayers footing the bill.
Under the new law, the property threshold for felony prosecution will increase from $500 to $1,000. This new property value amount for felony prosecution applies to crimes including embezzlement, bogus checks, fraud, forged instruments, and grand larceny.
According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, raising the threshold for felony prosecution of embezzlement, theft, and fraud is not likely to lead to an increase in property crimes, but should instead relieve some of the burdens of prison overcrowding and allow those convicted of nonviolent theft crimes to have a greater chance at rehabilitation and more opportunity to become productive citizens. Oklahoma Policy Institute author Ryan Gentzler writes, "Past increases in felony theft thresholds in Oklahoma and other states have not resulted in higher property crime rates. But this reform can prevent low-level offenders from having severely reduced life prospects due to a felony record."
Criminal justice reform has much needed in Oklahoma for some time, and it has been slow in coming. This and other new reform laws are a step in the right direction.