Members of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Reclassification Coordination Council produced a proposal that would reclassify felony offenses with the stated intent of striking a balance between the need to reduce prison populations and achieve uniformity in sentencing.
The legislatively created council also recommended improved access to mental health resources and diversion programs, and an overhaul of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. A report sent to lawmakers in advance of the 2020 legislative session indicates the recommendations are intended to provide "clarity and consistency" to "victims and defendants" and "society at large."
We applaud those objectives and believe efforts to achieve them are long overdue. That is reflected by voters' overwhelming support of State Question 780, the reclassification of low-level nonviolent crimes, and SQ 781, the reinvestment of resulting savings.
Like a lot of things, the devil can be in the details, and the 22 members of the council represent many competing interests. So these proposals deserve close scrutiny to guard against unintended consequences.
Oklahoma can no longer afford to incarcerate its residents at rates that are among the highest in the world — the commutation of sentences in November for more than 400 Oklahomans is expected to save taxpayers $11.9 million.
To ensure success, the council's proposals must be screened to ensure the length of prison sentences are comparable to the national median for the same or similar crimes. Where feasible, the criminal code should be reformed to rely more on treatment rather than incarceration.
While we acknowledge competing interests, the focus must remain on the mandate of reducing the state's prison population.