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A bill that would reform Oklahoma’s criminal sentencing law has stalled in the Senate with time running out, despite bipartisan support for the measure.
Senate Bill 704, authored by Sen. Dave Rader (R-Tulsa), would reduce the use of sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenses. Currently, prosecutors can use their discretion to impose sentences of life for repeating the same crime, even if that crime’s maximum sentence runs only a few years.
After the bill passed an important committee vote, Lawmakers referred it to the Senate Appropriations Committee. But unless they add it to Monday’s committee agenda, the bill will die.
Previously, lawmakers passed SB 704 out of the Senate Public Safety Committee in a 7-4 bipartisan vote. Two Democrats joined five Republicans in passing the bill. Though, the Committee’s leadership voted against it.
The modest reform would reduce Oklahoma’s prison population by about 1,400 people over ten years and save the state $137 million, according to a study from a conservative think tank.
Together Oklahoma is the advocacy arm of Oklahoma Policy Institute. It recently released alerts asking people to call their legislators in support of the bill.
“Senate Bill 704 is one of the most important criminal justice reforms in OK Policy’s safe communities agenda this year, but the bill is in danger of not moving forward. Unless SB 704 is added to the Senate Appropriations Committee agenda on Monday, this bill will fail,” Together Oklahoma warned its advocates in an email.
The fact that some Republicans want to pass it, while others seek to kill it, illustrate two facts that have lawmakers divided. On the one hand, Donald Trump’s White House passed a similar law on the federal level. The First Step Act became the signature criminal justice reform legislation of his brief presidency. But on the other hand, Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar proposal in November.
State Question 805 would have placed sentencing enhancement reform in Oklahoma’s constitution, making it nearly impossible to revoke. It failed, with only 39 percent of voters supporting it. Many in the majority feared it would allow for loop holes that would give a break to some violent offenders.
In the case of SB 704, however, the legislation is a state statute. This means it’s easier for lawmakers to change or strike the state sentencing reform down in the future if they feel it’s gone too far.
Oklahoma has longer prison sentences already
But for policy advocates, this reform represents one step in the right direction. Oklahoma Policy Institute has listed SB 704 as a policy priority within its Safe Communities agenda.
“Oklahoma has some of the longest prison sentences in the United States,” said Criminal Justice Policy Analyst Damion Shade. He said people serve about 79 percent longer for nonviolent drug crimes and about 70 percent longer for nonviolent property crimes than the national average.
“[SB 704] just makes sure that for nonviolent offenses, no one can ever serve longer than the statutory maximums. Even if repeat offenders,” he said. Advocates made calls over the weekend, hoping lawmakers would add SB 704 to the committee agenda by Monday. But the fate of the bill remained unclear.
Trump’s First Step Act motivation for Oklahoma Republicans
Ironically, the former president opened up a new lane for conservatives to drive through when he passed measures that reduced federal sentencing enhancements. Despite vulgar profanity directed towards the minority communities that suffer most from it, Trump did pass the First Step Act. It did little to end mass incarceration. But it managed to shift the conversation away from a “tough on crime” approach. Perhaps, some lawmakers were persuaded by it.
“I know Senator Rader really has expended a lot of his personal political capital to try and push this justice reform,” Shade said.
Like the Oklahoma bill, Trump’s First Step Act stalled in the U.S. Senate. Even that minor reform had to pass through several hurdles before it was signed into law. But it represented a major victory because it finally addressed one of the leading causes of mass incarceration—sentence enhancements. The federal prison population alone has risen by more than 700 percent since 1980, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Americans incarcerate more people than any other country. And it disproportionately affects people of color, namely: Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities.
“People would still be serving longer sentences than almost anywhere else in the United States,” Shade said about Senate Bill 704. “ So this is a modest reform that should get a lot of buy in.”
Shade explained how from 2007 to 2017, Texas managed to reduce their prison population by 10,000 and closed eight prisons. “So the idea that us reducing ours by 1,400 over the next decade is somehow frightening to public safety is just absurd.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee still didn’t have SB 704 on the agenda as of Sunday afternoon. Advocates are hoping lawmakers will add it by Monday morning before the committee meets at 10:00 a.m.