OK lawmakers: Lighter punishments will help prison overcrowding

MADILL, Okla. (KXII) Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin announced the agreement on six criminal justice reform bills last week, saying the state is throwing too many people in prison.

Just one month ago, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections announced they were at 113 percent capacity, along with nearly 1000 inmates awaiting transport from county jails.

Oklahoma also leads the nation with most women incarcerated per capita.

“These reforms are targeted at nonviolent offenders, many of whom suffer from addiction and mental health issues,” Fallin said in a press release. “The agreement reached is a huge first step forward, moving our state much closer to our goal of reducing the incarceration crisis while keeping our communities safe. Though it has been a difficult process of real compromise, I am extremely proud of our legislators, prosecutors, and leaders of our business community, all of whom have taken bold action to reduce incarceration.”

But Marshall County Sheriff Danny Cryer told News12 another group should have had a say.

"The one thing I'm missing is any law enforcement officials such as myself,” Cryer said.

Cryer told us he believes the reforms will just make things worse.

"I think that we're reducing criminal punishment and making it easier for criminals to get away with crimes,” Cryer said. “If you steal something it is stolen property. Whether it costs a dollar or a million dollars. By not incarcerating these people for longer periods we’re just going to have to deal with them twice as much. I think it endangers our society. It endangers our citizens.”

Proposals include lowering the range of punishments for property offenses, decriminalizing some car burglary charges, and lightening the penalty for other burglaries.

It would also let some old and sick people out of prison sooner. And judges would no longer be forced to give drug traffickers minimum sentences.

“Some of the inmates in the department of corrections live better in there than the citizens out here on the streets. We have gotten softer and softer upon punishment for crimes and obviously that hasn't been working too well for us,” Cryer said. “If the prison population continues to climb any measure they've taken before this has not worked."

Similar measures include State Questions 780 and 781, which took effect last year. The measures declassified all drug possession and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and designated the money saved for rehabilitation.

“I have not seen any new mental health clinics and I don’t think we’ll ever save enough money off this to support mental health,” Cryer said.

People we talked to agree with him.

“We’ve already got problems here,” Gore resident Janet Ross said. “We don’t need them to get any worse. And with these new bills I think we’re headed in the wrong direction. It's like little children. You keep slapping them on the hand they're going to continue to do it because it's not that big of a penalty."

Fallin released the following information about each bill:

House Bill (HB) 2281 which would create a tiered structure for property offenses, based on dollar valuations, with lower ranges of punishments.
HB 2286, which would create a streamlined administrative parole, as well as a more comprehensive aging and medical parole.
Senate Bill (SB) 649, which would target the nonviolent offenses that are driving up incarceration numbers with a new sentence enhancement structure for second and subsequent convictions.
SB 689, which would amend the justice safety valve provision to address long sentences for drug trafficking, and provides for numerous improvements to supervision;
SB 786, which would create a burglary in the third degree charge for burglary of vehicles, with a lesser range of punishment. It also would remove the mandatory minimum sentence for burglary in the second degree, and;
Pending legislation that would retool the drug structure, doing away with draconian penalties of the war on drugs, and bases possession with intent to distribute based on weight.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat, House Majority Whip Terry O’Donnell and District 11 District Attorney Kevin Buchanan, president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association praised the agreement.

“These bills, if passed, will keep more Oklahomans as productive, taxpaying citizens, and they will slow down the projected growth in corrections’ cost, resulting in savings that can be reinvested in education, health care, and mental health programs that will yield further positive results,” Treat said.

O’Donnell said the bills are a ‘cookbook’ full of the best data-driven policies that have been proven to lower crime rates and incarceration rates throughout the nation.

“And I believe they will work here, also,” O’Donnell said.

We’re told legislative action is expected on these bills in the near future.