Oklahoma has a chance at substantive sentencing reform for the first time in its statehood and the people tasked with guiding that reform have released a draft proposal for what it might look like.
So far, no public comment on the CJRCC’s work has been allowed and there is no indication public input will be sought.
The CJRCC’s work has taken place mostly in the dark, without any visibility or criticism.
Felony reclassification in Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s “top cop” is Attorney General Mike Hunter. The Oklahoma Legislature passed a law (Senate BIll 1098) during the 2018 session requiring Hunter’s office to create a work group to study and ultimately reorganize criminal sentencing in Oklahoma.
The Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council (CJRCC) started meeting in 2019.
The CJRCC has twenty-two members, including three district attorneys, two sheriffs, a deputy police chief, a retired judge, representatives from the legislature and several state agencies including the Department of Corrections. This group is required by law to compile a recommendation for restructuring Oklahoma’s felony sentences.
Each class groups similar crimes together and each of the crimes within a class carry the same sentence. For example, Class B2 crimes would all be subject to a sentencing range of 3-20 years (for a first offense, with 50% mandatory time served).
Many state governments have found this to be an effective way to organize felonies so that they can be more easily understood by law enforcement and the public. It is also a good way to eliminate antiquated laws, reduce sentences, and reform old enhancement structures that have grown prison populations without significant return on public safety.
The CJRCC is required by law to keep the prison population neutral or reduce it.
Since the CJRCC was formed in 2018, there has been little movement toward a sentencing structure recommendation.
But unlike federal sentencing reform processes, Oklahoma’s Council has elected not to invite the public to participate through roundtables, open comment hearings, and in other ways which allow for a meaningful dialogue.
The need for felony reclassification
The CJRCC has an extremely important job.
Oklahoma’s criminal code has been inconsistent for many years. Earlier attempts at sentencing reform like this have never been successful, largely because the code is so complicated and unwieldy. Many legislators shy away from comprehensive change like this because it is intricate and difficult to predict outcomes.
Instead of a comprehensive overhaul of the criminal code, the common practice in Oklahoma is to add crimes or change sentences one at a time during the legislative session. This method of adding crimes one at a time over the last few decades has left Oklahoma with an impossibly complicated and scattered criminal code that is often inconsistent. These inconsistencies cost taxpayers because unclear laws will always be litigated, and they are more frequently litigated by public defenders and indigent defense (paid for by state or county taxes). Clarifying, streamlining, and modernizing laws should be an easy sell.
The current proposal and its potential effects
In April 2021, the CJRCC released a draft containing 14 felony categories.
Each includes a range of sentencing reflecting increased punishments based on first, second, and third or more offenses. These ranges escalate if someone has prior offenses on their record.
Within the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, good time credits are put in place to allow people serving their sentence to earn extra days off the back end for good behavior. Many corrections professionals point to good time credits as a way to incentivize good behavior inside institutions. Under current law, all felonies (except 85% crimes and Aggravated Trafficking (65%)) are eligible for good behavior credits throughout the duration of their sentence.
But the current CJRCC sentencing proposal includes guidelines requiring new mandatory time served percentages for each felony class. The highest class must serve 75-percent of the sentence before becoming parole eligible, or banking good behavior credits. Each class then decreases from 75-percent to 65-percent, all the way down to the lowest class which is required to serve 10-percent of the sentence. This essentially means that no person serving time will be eligible for good time credits until the mandatory percentage of their time has been served in DOC. Other states have called these kinds of plans “truth-in-sentencing.”
Sentencing guidelines impact all Oklahomans
This proposal is important for people who are currently in the criminal justice system, as well as anyone who may be caught up in the system in the future. It’s important for taxpayers because Oklahomans largely approve of being smarter on crime, not throwing money into an ever-growing incarceration system. When this plan grows the prison population, it’s going to be everyday taxpayers who pay for it.
In its current draft form, the proposal will not apply changes to sentencing guidelines retroactively to adjust sentences already in progress.
Under the current plan, any positive benefit in sentencing would not apply to anyone currently incarcerated.
The current proposal if enacted without debate will cause an increase in the prison population, solely based on the provision of mandatory time served percentages being applied across all crimes, instead of only a few like we have now. The CJRCC is required by law to put together a plan that holds neutral or reduces the prison population.
This proposal will ultimately impact all Oklahomans.
It’s important for people to get engaged and demand input to the plan.
It’s time to turn on the light.