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Defeat a proposal to standardize criminal penalties in Oklahoma

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Debate over a proposal to standardize Oklahoma’s complex penal code is intensifying, with supporters of justice reform saying it will lead to an increase in the state’s prison population over the next decade.

Unlike most states, including neighboring Kansas and Arkansas, Oklahoma does not categorize crimes by seriousness. Instead, lawmakers chose to add and remove crimes and their sentence ranges individually, resulting in a curvy list of offenses in Oklahoma’s statutes.

Last month, the Attorney General’s Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordinating Council finalized its plan to categorize all crimes into an easier to understand matrix. A group of 22 state lawmakers, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and a retired judge have been part of the task force since 2018.

Members of the task force say the classification system would make it easier for defendants, jurors and the general public to understand the state’s criminal code. It would also allow prosecutors and defense lawyers to more simply calculate how long a person sentenced to prison would have to serve before they can be released, they argue.

Supporters of criminal justice reform warn that the plan could result in longer prison stays for some, especially those convicted of minor drug and property crimes, and increase the burden on taxpayers.

Lawmakers will consider the proposal when the legislature meets again in February. Here’s how it could impact criminal justice in Oklahoma:

What does the Coordinating Council plan look like?

Their plan calls for all criminal offenses to be categorized by seriousness and classified into 14 categories.

Each category has its own range of sentences and its own minimum period of execution requirement. Defendants who have already been convicted of felony would face longer sentences and prison terms.

For example, a first-time offender convicted of third-degree burglary, a D1 crime, would be sentenced to 0-5 years and would have to serve at least 20% of his or her sentence behind bars. An accused who committed two or more previous crimes would be sentenced to between 2 and 10 years and would have to serve at least 30% of their sentence behind bars.

The classification system would provide more certainty to prosecutors seeking to ensure that a person spends a certain amount of time in jail, task force members say. Most state prisoners earn time served credits for their good behavior and participation in the program, but the accrual of these credits varies depending on their level of security and behavior while incarcerated.

“I want to stress that the goal is some certainty,” Oklahoma County Chief Public Defender Bob Ravitz said during an Oct. 5 interim study on reform of the government. sentencing. “Our sentencing code in Oklahoma, in my 40 years of practice, has been a total mishmash.”

Although the proposal sets a minimum time requirement for all inmates, their release date will still be affected by the accumulation of good conduct and program participation credits.

Felicity Rose, criminal justice policy analyst for FWD.us, told lawmakers that most state prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes served an average of 35 to 50 percent of their court-imposed sentence before being released. The expected release date for most prisoners would not change significantly under the proposal, but more offenders could face mandatory jail time, Rose said.

“It’s not going to be an easy thing ‘everyone is going out at that point,’” Rose said. “And that’s actually a good thing. We don’t want too much certainty in a system because people don’t have an incentive.

What would be the impact on the judges?

Although the sentence ranges for certain crimes are adjusted slightly, judges could still consider mitigating and aggravating circumstances when considering a sentence.

Most of the sentence ranges would remain relatively wide. For example, the range of sentences proposed for a class C1 crime without precedent is 0 to 10 years.

“We felt it was really important that judges in individual cases have the opportunity to have an outlier, either above or below, knowing that most people are going to be in the middle range,” said Assistant Deputy Attorney General Lori Carter.

What would be the impact on the state’s prison population?

The coordinating council was tasked with making recommendations that “would reduce or keep the prison population neutral”. Whether or not that happens depends on who you ask.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections predicts that the average criminal sentence would drop by six months, and the state’s prison population would decline by about 900 over the next decade. The agency noted that it could take up to 45 years for the full impact of the law to be visible. His report analyzed six crimes that make up about 25% of the state’s prison population.

FWD.us found that the state’s prison population would increase by around 1,000 over the next decade if the changes were implemented, with much of the increase coming from non-violent offenders subject to demands from minimum purged time. His analysis was more comprehensive, examining 50 crimes covering 90% of the state’s prison population.

Is the plan retroactive?

No. All sentences handed down before the implementation of the classification system would be maintained, even if the range of sentences had changed.

What other recommendations has the Classification Council made?

The task force was given general instructions to “recommend other appropriate changes to improve Oklahoma’s criminal justice system and ensure the public safety of its citizens.”

They said the legislature should allocate funds to expand mental health treatment and create a statewide data exchange program that tracks prisoners from admission to release.

Other suggestions include:

  • Increase funding for rehabilitation and post-incarceration supervision programs
  • Develop juvenile drug courts and mental health courts
  • Provide a certificate of rehabilitation to inmates who have successfully served their sentence

And after?

The legislator will examine the proposal during the next session. Lawmakers could pass it as is, change parts of it, or reject it altogether.

State Senator Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, stressed during the Oct. 5 hearing that lawmakers will have to compromise if they want the bill to pass.

“If we’re looking for perfection on something that heavy, that tough, I’d say we’ll never get there,” said Weaver, who was on the task force.

Keaton Ross is a member of the Report for America corps that covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss

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