Crime reclassification plan authors call it compromise, but reform advocates want more

Oct 8, 2021

A Tulsa state lawmaker’s interim study dug into sentencing reform recommendations from a 22-member council that the authors defended as a needed compromise and reform advocates said didn't go far enough.

Republican Sen. Dave Rader wanted to hear more about the proposal, which would create 14 categories of felonies, each with a range of punishment, a minimum percentage that must be served and enhancements for any prior convictions.

Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Deputy Director Colleen McCarty said Kansas has 13,000 fewer people locked up than Oklahoma does. Kansas has a commission that reviews sentencing laws annually, and  it uses a plan similar to what Oklahoma's reclassification council came up with.

"But the way that they do it is they divide it by violent and nonviolent crimes. So, that person is not just subjected to a longer range based on the fact that they have priors. It is what kind of priors they have that dictate whether or not they have a longer range," McCarty said.

State law that created the reclassification council requires its recommendation either decrease or have a neutral impact on Oklahoma's prison population.

There are competing analyses of the proposal. Justice reform advocates FWD.us project 1,000 more people in prison over 10 years.

"We think that's due to the new time served requirements, especially for the non-85% violent crimes and the nonviolent crimes. There should be an effect past 10 years where some of the 85% reductions start to have a positive impact on the prison population," said Director of Research and Policy for Criminal Justice Reform Felicity Rose.

People convicted of offenses state law defines as violent must serve at least 85% of their sentences, but not all crimes against another person are defined as violent.

The Department of Corrections predicts a neutral impact on prison population at first, with the average time behind bars dropping by six months. DOC eventually projects 860 fewer inmates, though that could take 45 years.

"I think probably everybody in this room agrees that we need to overhaul — we need to reclassify, we need to restructure our criminal code — but starting from ... a place that would hold our prison population constant, that is not a neutral position. It is a position that is in favor of very punitive and excessive sentencing," said Open Justice Oklahoma Director Ryan Gentzler.

Gentzler said Oklahoma has the nation’s third-highest incarceration rate because people are locked up longer than they would be in other states for the same crimes. The state is 16th in the country in new prison admissions per year.

Cleveland, Garvin and McLain counties District Attorney Greg Mashburn said the reclassification plan would provide the certainty prosecutors are looking for.

"A big drug dealer in Garvin County, we give him 11 years, he's out on an ankle monitor in 12 months, and [the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics] makes another case on him dealing meth in Garvin County. I want a plan to where I don't have to guess at giving 11 and maybe seeing him back out on the streets in 12 months," Mashburn said. "I want something where, OK, I can know he's going to be off the streets for two to three."

Oklahoma County Chief Public Defender Bob Ravitz served on the reclassification council and said it’s an attempt to fix a justice system where prosecutors routinely overshoot to get the sentence length they want and he can't confidently tell a client how long they will end up behind bars.

"What this tries to do is to come up with some honest certainty into the system. That's what we're asking for. And I know money's tight in this state. I'm willing — if we made a mistake and we're off by 200 beds over 10 years, it's not the end of the world. But we also could be 1,000 beds under, and that's what everybody understood on the committee," Ravitz said.

Ravitz watched previous sentence reform efforts in the 1990s fail in Oklahoma but believes it can be done now.