ANALYSIS: Time to use the 'safety valve'?
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Published: 14-Apr-2015

OKLAHOMA CITY – Wednesday (April 14), a measure that could breathe new life into Oklahoma's judicial reform movement may be considered on the floor of the state Senate.

According to a flier circulating at the Capitol from advocates of the measure, House Bill 1518 (deemed the “Justice Safety Valve Act”) is modeled after the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC)
“policy recommendation that provides judges with discretion to depart from the mandatory
minimum sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders only in situations where the mandatory
minimum is not necessary to protect public safety.”

The measure is a relatively rare example of agreement between Republican conservative policy analysts and their moderate to progressive peers – as well as elements in the Democratic party. Principal author of H.B. 1518 is state Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa.

Oklahoma can “enhance public safety and control costs by allowing judicial discretion in specific mandatory minimum cases, thereby prioritizing prison space for violent and dangerous offenders,” says Jonathan Small, a vice president at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), the state's leading free market “think tank.”

Another conservative advocate of the measure is Marc Levin, a nationally-known analyst with the “Right on Crime” organization, which grew out of a Texas public policy group. In comments provided to CapitolBeatOK, Levin said, Oklahoma should join “other states in taking a balanced approach that provides the authority, tools, and sufficient discretion to courts to hold nonviolent offenders accountable in the way that will be most effective given the facts of the case. 

Rather than being soft on crime, such an approach is smart on crime.”

Briefly put, the proposal would allow judicial sentencing discretion in certain instances. 

The “safety value” flier explained the measure would allow the state to focus “scarce public safety resources on offenders that are a real threat to the community.” Further, it would “ensure that prison sentences are
commensurate with the crime and are only as long as necessary to protect public safety.”

The measure is distinct from, but rooted in, the philosophy that guided historic laws that passed and were signed into law in 2012, intending to slow the pace of Oklahoma's burgeoning prison population. (The state was and remains first in female incarceration, and ranges from third to fifth in male incarceration most years.) Although conservative Republicans led the push for that measure, it enjoyed strong support from House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, and other mainstream Democrats.

Undisputable, is the fact that a disproportionate number of Oklahomans serving lengthy sentences in state facilities committed non-violent crimes. 

Oklahoma's “85 percent” minimum has driven prison numbers to historic highs. As actually enforced and implemented the rule has meant that offenders serve 95 percent or more of their sentence before becoming eligible for release, even after (or in spite of) good behavior while incarcerated. 

Despite the broad appeal of the proposal for advocates of prison reform and justice improvement, the
Oklahoma District Attorney Council is opposing it. The group contends (contrary to the proposed statutory language)  that H.B. 1518 would erode sentencing standards for sexual and violent offenders, eliminate mandatory minimums, and force judges to give reduced sentences.

Although the measure went through revisions to satisfy stated concerns of the group, it decided to oppose the legislation. 

A notable exception has been Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, a longstanding advocate of criminal justice reform. Prater supports H.B. 1518.

The conundrum for prison reforms and advocates of more equity and balance in the system emerged soon after an earlier measure, by then-Speaker of the House Kris Steele, passed and was signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin. As Steele and others have reported, states across America have seen a reduction in the increase of numbers incarcerated, and significant cost savings, in wake of passage for such laws.

Gov. Fallin, who had supported the 2012 measure, broke against it in deliberations inside state government, slow-playing it's implementation  and eventually eroding the historic bipartisan consensus that had supported the concept.


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