Oklahoma Sentencing Reform – Senate Bill 704
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Published: 19-Feb-2021
from Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform 

Authored by Senator Dave Rader, a Tulsa Republican, Senate Bill 704 is OCJR’s most ambitious legislation this session. S.B. 704 has the potential to help Oklahomans serving excessive sentences for truly non-violent crimes while saving the state over $100 Million dollars over the next ten years.

Oklahoma has one of the highest imprisonment rates in the country, driven by long sentences and time spent behind bars, particularly for drug and property offenses.

A review of sentence enhancements across Oklahoma found that they are frequently used and have the highest impact when applied to non-violent drug and property offenses, resulting in 50-60 percent longer sentences.

Research shows that these long sentences do not protect public safety and simply add extra months and years of incarceration that taxpayers must pay for. By eliminating these enhancements for most non-violent offenses and applying this reform retroactively, Oklahoma can make sentencing fairer, safely reduce its prison population, and save taxpayer dollars. [For summary on this bill’s progress, see: http://www.oklegislature.gov/BillInfo.aspx?Bill=sb704&Session=2100]

SUMMARY

S.B. 704 would prohibit prison sentences longer than the statutory maximum set by the legislature for non-violent offenses (with some exceptions) by eliminating sentence enhancements that increase prison terms dramatically, sometimes up to life in prison, if the person has non-violent prior convictions. S.B. 704 also eliminates many felony pattern enhancements listed in drug statutes. S.B. 704 provides relief to people who have received an excessive sentence under these provisions in the past. The legislature can amend the statute at any time and any crimes later defined as violent would be subject to sentence enhancements.

EXCLUSIONS

Under S.B. 704, people can continue to be sentenced beyond the statutory maximum if the person has any of the following prior or current felony convictions:

    • Offenses defined as violent
    • Any domestic abuse felony
    • Offenses requiring registration as a sex offender 
    • Animal cruelty
    • DUI that causes great bodily injury

The following felony pattern enhancements will remain in place under S.B. 704 and people can continue to receive a longer sentence if they were convicted of the same offense previously:

    • DUI
    • Drug offenses involving a minor
    • Drug offenses that occur within 2,000 feet of a school, park, public housing, or daycare center

RETROACTIVITY

Under S.B. 704, people with an enhanced sentence for many non-violent offenses would be eligible for resentencing or commutation if their current sentence is longer than the statutory maximum. People in prison would be added to an accelerated commutation docket. Anyone with an eligible sentence could apply to their court of origin for resentencing. Victims would be notified if a sentence is being reviewed for commutation or resentencing.

IMPACT

S.B. 704 would help people with excessive sentences for non-violent offenses, like:

    •  A woman sentenced to 18 years in prison for forging a check. What is usually a two-year maximum sentence was enhanced to four to LIFE because of two low-level property and drug convictions from more than a decade earlier.

    •  A man sentenced to 20 years in prison for stealing a debit card and a ring. What is a five-year maximum sentence was enhanced to four to LIFE because of two previous DUI convictions.

    •  A woman sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug possession with intent to distribute. What is a seven-year maximum sentence was enhanced to four to LIFE because of two prior convictions for writing a fraudulent check and drug possession.
      
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Will this reform lower our incarceration rate?

Yes. A review of sentence enhancements across Oklahoma found that they are frequently used (80 percent of cases) and have the highest impact when applied to non-violent drug and property offenses, resulting in 50 to 60 percent longer sentences. 
(https://www.ocpathink.org/uploads/assets/pdfs/OCPA-805-Report.pdf)

Will this reform allow people with many convictions to get off easy? 

No. People with prior non-violent convictions can still be sentenced up to the maximum sentence set by the legislature for any non-violent offense. If a person has any prior or current convictions excluded from S.B. 704, a sentence enhancement can still be applied.

Will this reform prevent judges and juries from considering a person’s prior history at sentencing?

Judges and juries can still take criminal history into account when deciding an appropriate sentence, and people with prior convictions can still receive the maximum sentence.

Why not focus on first time crimes?

Sentences for people without priors aren’t driving the prison population, sentences for people with priors (due to enhancements) are. About 80 percent of Oklahomans with non-violent priors receive enhanced sentences, sometimes up to life in prison. People with prior convictions have already paid their debt to society and deserve a real chance at redemption. 

Don’t longer sentences for drug and property crimes make us safer? 

Locking people up because of a substance use disorder or for an offense linked to poverty is ineffective and does not address the root cause of the crimes committed. The best way to keep our communities safe and hold people accountable is to make sure resources are shifted to rehabilitation, substance abuse treatment, and job training programs.

Will this reform save taxpayer money?

Yes. This reform is projected to save over $100 million taxpayer dollars within the next 10 years. Those savings can then be used for treatment, education, and to support survivors of crime.

Didn’t Oklahoma voters reject this same reform in State Question 805?

Oklahoma voters support reforms that will safely reduce the prison population and limit excessive sentences. Unlike S.Q. 805, S.B. 704 is not a constitutional amendment and is a compromised solution that excludes many offenses voters were uncomfortable with, including domestic abuse and animal cruelty. 

Note: This summary of Senate Bill 704 first appeared on the website of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform 
[https://okjusticereform.org/oklahoma-senate-bill-704-sentence-enhancement-reform/ ]
 
The mission of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR), posted on the group’s website, “is to advocate for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma through research-driven policy and reform efforts that improve public safety by reducing the state’s dependence on incarceration. Safe criminal justice reform saves taxpayer dollars and allows for reinvestment in alternatives to incarceration that ultimately benefits the individual, their family and the community.”

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