With Oklahoma prisons overcrowded, and with the state at the top of the nation in incarceration rates, criminal justice reform is becoming a priority for state legislators. In general, Oklahoma inmates serve much longer sentences for nonviolent crimes than do their counterparts in other states. One of the primary ways the state is trying to combat the high incarceration rate and crowded prisons is by reducing sentencing for certain nonviolent crimes, and adding tiers to property crimes which would tie sentencing commensurate with the value of the property involved.
Last week the House of Representatives voted to adopt the Conference Committee Reports (CCR) on House Bills 2281 and 2286.
One of the reforms in HB 2281 is to amend the state's existing embezzlement law to add value tiers, thereby reducing sentences for many embezzlement crimes. The statute in 21 O.S. 1451 was amended in late 2016 by a vote of the people in SQ 780. Currently, law includes the following tiers:
- less than $1,000 - up to one year in jail
- $1,000 to less than $25,000 - up to 5 years in prison
- $25,000 or more - up to 10 years in prison
House Bill 2281 would further define tiers and would change sentencing in keeping with the spirit of SQ 780. The new tiers and penalties would include the following:
- less than $1,000 - up to one year in jail or one or more nights or weekends at the discretion of the court
- $1,000 to less than $2,500 - up to one year in jail or up to 2 years in prison
- $2,500 to less than $15,000 - up to 5 years in prison
- $15,000 or more - up to 8 years in prison
Similar changes would be made to statutes involving other nonviolent property crimes, including bogus checks, uttering a forged instrument, counterfeiting, and more.
House Bill 2286 would make changes to parole by adding administrative parole, shortening the time a person convicted of a nonviolent crime must serve before becoming eligible for parole, adding parole eligibility requirements, and creating a new law to allow for geriatric parole. For those convicted of crimes occurring on or after November 1, 2018, they would become eligible for parole after serving one fourth of the sentence rather than one third. Additionally, they may be considered for parole up to two months before the eligibility date. Additionally, inmates who are 60 years old and who have served the shorter of 10 years or one-third of the sentence may become eligible for parole. These changes apply only to those convicted of nonviolent offenses. Both HB 2281 and HB 2286 now move to the Senate for vote.
With the Oklahoma Department of Corrections requesting more than $1 billion dollars in order to build two new prisons, it is clear that criminal justice reform is necessary. Our prisons are bursting at the seams, and it is in large part due to nonviolent inmates serving excessive sentences. Watch for additional criminal justice bills in the coming weeks.