Oklahoma's prisons have long been overcrowded, with the state having one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, and with the state's inmates typically serving longer sentences than their counterparts in other states. Because of this, the Oklahoma legislature has recently been eyeing ways to reduce the state's prison population through sentencing reform and updating parole policies.
Late last week, Governor Mary Fallin signed seven new bills into law with the intent of easing prison growth. As she signed the bills, Fallin said, "Oklahoma's had a long history of incarcerating nonviolent offenders who have addiction issues, sometimes for long periods of time. Today, we're changing that. Today is a new day for the state of Oklahoma."
Some of the bills signed into law would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug offenses and nonviolent crimes; others would facilitate record expungement. Many of the bills that were signed into law last week were actually dead in the prior legislative session, held hostage by a committee chairman who refused to give them a hearing. Now, they have been not only heard, but approved by the House and Senate and signed into law by the governor.
The new bills follow:
- Senate Bill 649 eliminates sentencing enhancements for some repeat offenders.
- Senate Bill 650 reduces the time to request expungement from 10 years to 5 years for offenders who stay out of trouble.
- Senate Bill 689 modifies long prison sentences for drug trafficking and allows certain sentences to be reduced if the inmate has served at least 10 years.
- Senate Bill 786 defines a new crime, third degree burglary, related to burglary of a vehicle. It also eliminates mandatory minimums for second degree burglary.
- Senate Bill 793 eliminates life without parole as a sentencing option for certain drug crimes and also eliminates most mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes.
- House Bill 2281 creates a tiered structure for property crimes, tying the sentence to the value of the property involved.
- House Bill 2286 changes the parole policy, allowing nonviolent criminals to become eligible for parole after serving one-fourth, rather than one-third, of their sentences. Additionally, the law would allow new guidelines for the parole of elderly or infirm inmates.
Oklahoma's prisons are above 100 percent capacity, with the prison population expected to increase by at least 25 percent by 2026. The new laws are hoped to reduce that expected growth by two-thirds.