MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 19, 2014

Senate panel approves tough new penalties

OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite Oklahoma’s high incarceration rates, a Senate committee approved a half-dozen bills Wednesday to increase the criminal penalties for various crimes, including child pornography distribution, and drug and human trafficking.

With little discussion and no debate, the Senate Public Safety Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved six separate measures to dramatically increase fines, penalties or prison time for people convicted of certain crimes.

One bill would increase the fines for maintaining a house of prostitution from $100 to $2,000, the distribution of “obscene materials” from $1,000 to $2,000, and make the punishment for a second offense related to child pornography a mandatory 10 years in prison.

Another measure allows up to life in prison for human trafficking and adds the crime to the list for which those convicted must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole.

“It is becoming a problem nationwide,” said Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the author of the trafficking bill. “We have had an increase in at least the awareness of human trafficking, and there are often minors involved with it who will have their lives forever damaged and forever changed if they’re pulled into this awful underbelly.”

Treat said he worked with a group representing district attorneys to ensure the life sentence applied only to trafficking cases that involved the exploitation of minors, but he acknowledged he spent little time thinking about the bill’s impact on the state’s prison system.

“That thought may have crossed my mind, but the overarching concern is about those people who are being trafficked,” he said.

Oklahoma locks up more women per capita than any other state and has the fourth-highest overall incarceration rate in the country, according to a report by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice think-tank that analyzed 2012 data. The report shows Louisiana led the nation with 893 inmates per 100,000 people, followed by Mississippi (717), Alabama (650) and Oklahoma (648). The national average was 480 inmates per 100,000 people.

Rep. Richard Morrissette, a criminal defense attorney in Oklahoma City, said legislators often don’t consider the real-life ramifications of the measures they pass.

“The courts send these people to prison based on the statues that we pass, and the Legislature doesn’t really have a concept of what’s occurring at the local level,” said Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. “The system is dysfunctional.”

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