Justice Safety Valve Act Passes Oklahoma House

[caption id="attachment_4520" align="aligncenter" width="774"]Image Credit: okhouse.gov Image Credit: okhouse.gov[/caption] A bill that would allow judges greater discretion in sentencing despite the statutory imposition of mandatory minimum sentences is one step closer to becoming law. The Oklahoma House of Representatives passed House Bill 1518, known as the Justice Safety Valve Act, by a vote of 17-16. It now moves on to the state Senate for consideration. The Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, is intended to reduce state prison overcrowding, particularly in cases where a mandatory minimum sentence is excessive and not in the best interest of justice. Seventeen other states have already passed similar legislation. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarcerations rates in the United States--the third highest overall and the nation's incarceration rate for women. By allowing the court the ability to deviate from a statutory mandatory minimum under certain circumstances, the Justice Safety Valve Act could alleviate the strain on Oklahoma prisons. The Oklahoma prison population has doubled over the past 25 years, increasing 13 percent in the last decade while prison staffing has decreased nearly 20 percent. House Bill 1518 would create a new law that states that when sentencing a person for a crime that stipulates a mandatory minimum sentence, "the court may depart from the applicable sentence" if it finds "substantial and compelling reasons" that the mandatory minimum is not necessary for public safety and would be injustice for the person sentenced. In order to deviate from the prescribed mandatory minimum, the judge must evaluate several aspects of the case, including the nature of the crime, the criminal history of the defendant, and the defendant's chances of successful rehabilitation. The court is not given discretion to deviate from mandatory minimums in all cases, however. Crimes which do not allow a judge to give a sentence less than the statutory mandatory minimum include the following:

  • Violent crimes listed in 57 O.S. § 571
  • Sex crimes requiring sex offender registration
  • Crimes involving the use of a firearm
  • "85 Percent Crimes" listed in 21 O.S. § 13.1
  • Drug trafficking
  • The defendant is the "leader, manager or supervisor of others in a continuing criminal enterprise"
One critic of the bill, Rep. Scott Biggs, R-Chickasha, says that he opposes the bill because the justice reform would not be strict enough on criminals: "I’ve said I’m for reform, just not when it comes to violent offenders. Here we have repeat offenders. It's a bad bill." But "repeat offenders" and "violent offenders" are not the same thing. If you get caught with a joint as an 18-year-old high school student, and again as a 22-year-old college student, that makes you a repeat drug offender. It does not make you a violent offender. Your chances for rehabilitation are likely pretty good if your only drug offenses were a couple of minor possession charges from your youth. It can be tough for Oklahoma lawmakers to enact a law that seems to be less "tough on crime." However, the Justice Safety Valve Act is not about becoming soft on criminals, but about allowing sentencing that is a more accurate measure of justice than the one-size-fits-all imposition of mandatory minimums.

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