Oklahoma Introduces Bill to Roll Back Criminal Justice Reforms

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A bill that would modify State Question 780, a 2016 voter-approved ballot initiative that reclassified several drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and has helped reduce Oklahoma’s prison population, has advanced past committee and is eligible for a Senate vote, reports Oklahoma Watch. Senate Bill 334, sponsored by Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle, would increase penalties against certain larceny offenders. Under current state law, if a person commits three or more property crimes over a 90-day period, the total value of the stolen goods can be combined to determine if the defendant should be charged with a felony or misdemeanor. If the total reaches or exceeds $1,000, the punishment is enhanced to a felony. Senate Bill 334 would increase the calculating period from 90 days to one year. Paxton said he had heard of cases where offenders were intentionally spacing out thefts to avoid a felony charge and drafted the bill based on recommendations from the National Retail Association.

Criminal justice reform advocates say this bill would target low-level, economically disadvantaged offenders who don’t deserve a felony conviction or prison time and argue that nearby Texas and Kansas, which have lower calculating periods and higher thresholds for raising misdemeanor larceny to a felony, haven’t seen a substantial increase in thefts. Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation data shows that total larceny offenses have trended downward in recent years. In 2019 there were 70,776 larceny offenses, down from 73,917 in 2016. Since State Question 780 was implemented, the prison population has dropped from 28,003 in March 2016 to 21,643 as of March 1st, 2021. Oklahoma now has the nation’s third-highest imprisonment rate, behind Louisiana and Mississippi, according to a February 2020 StateImpact Oklahoma analysis. However, advocates warn that a recent murder case involving a commutation recipient who killed three people after being released after serving 20 years for a probation violation, may sway the legislature towards enacting more tough on crime policies like Bill 334.

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