In Case You Missed It: HOUSE BILL 1792 — Some Analysis From the Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, to CapitolBeatOK.com.
House Bill 1792, the Oklahoma Crime Reclassification Act of 2023, sponsored by Representative Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, and Senator Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, would create a felony classification system with consistent sentencing ranges based on the seriousness of the offense and the individual’s criminal history. This important legislation builds off the work of the Oklahoma Senate, which passed similar legislation (Senate Bill 1646) in 2021. The bill passed through the House as a shell bill by a vote of 71-19 and has also been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Negotiations over specific bill language are ongoing.
Rep. Osburn and Sen. Rader are working with stakeholders to negotiate the final proposal with a clear mandate to deliver a meaningful impact on the state’s prison population.
What would H.B. 1792 do?
● H.B. 1792 would organize the 1,100 felony offenses in Oklahoma’s criminal code into 15 alphanumeric classes based on the seriousness of the offense with proportionate sentence lengths, enhancements, and fines.
● Reclassification protects prosecutorial and judicial discretion. Prosecutors will still determine which charges to file, what plea offers to make, and what sentences to recommend. Judges will continue to impose sentences within the range set by the legislature, as they have always done.
● It will create consistency and clarity in Oklahoma’s criminal code while safely reducing the prison population and saving taxpayers money.
Why is H.B. 1792 needed?
● Oklahoma has the fourth-highest imprisonment rate in the country and taxpayers spend more than $550 million on the prison system each year. One of the chief reasons for this high imprisonment rate and large taxpayer burden is a criminal code that has become arbitrary, ineffective, and wasteful.
● Unlike most states, Oklahoma does not organize its criminal code into a standard classification system and instead relies on a patchwork of laws that list each crime individually with its own sentence range and fines. The result is that people charged with the same crime in different counties can face drastically different sentences.
● Research also shows that prison sentences in Oklahoma are notably longer than in other states. For example, people sentenced to prison in Oklahoma spend nearly twice as long behind bars for property crimes such as larceny and fraud and more than twice as long for drug sale or trafficking convictions—35 months in Oklahoma compared to an average of 17 months in other states. https://turningthepage.fwd.us/pdf/issue-brief-a-tale-of-two-counties.pdf
These longer periods in prison do not make Oklahomans safer. https://justjournalism.org/page/deterrence-and-incapacitation-a-quick-review-of-the-research
● Overall, people released from prison in Oklahoma have been incarcerated an average of 12 months longer than people in other states.
● Average sentence ranges vary from county to county, DA district to DA district, and they are overly harsh for nonviolent offenders. In Latimer and LeFlore counties, the average sentence in FY 2021 was around 4.5 years. In Comanche and Cotton counties, it was over 10 years.
Do Oklahomans support reclassification?
● Yes, according to polling by Public Opinion Strategies, 80% of Oklahoma voters support “creating a new felony classification system with consistent sentencing ranges based on the seriousness of the crime and shorter prison sentences for some offenses.” This includes 74% of Republican voters and 68% of self-identified, “very conservative” voters.
What would the impact on Oklahomans be?
● H.B. 1792 is still being negotiated; however, a felony classification system is long overdue in Oklahoma and bill sponsors are committed to safely reducing incarceration and taxpayer spending as part of this process.
● Not only would H.B. 1792 modernize the state’s criminal code to make it more clear and consistent, but it would also provide prison sentences that are more in line with other states while keeping Oklahoma communities safe.
● Last session, the Senate passed similar legislation that, according to an analysis by the American Conservative Union (ACU), would have averted up to $111 million in additional prison expenditures and reduced the prison population by 1,000 people over the next decade.
Will H.B. 1792 change fines?
● H.B. 1792 is still being negotiated; however, Oklahoma needs a better, more fair, and standardized criminal justice system that is not crushing people under a mountain of debt.
● Under the current proposal under negotiation, as well as under SB 1646 which passed the Senate last year, criminal fines would be set based on class, and would be proportionate to the seriousness of the offense. Setting maximum fines for each class creates more clarity and consistency in Oklahoma’s criminal code.
● Any class-based reductions in fines under H.B. 1792 would not impact the court’s ability to impose restitution, court costs, and other fees. Oklahoma’s fines and fees system punishes primarily people who already are suffering economically, while also being ineffective and a substantial barrier to successful reentry. Across the state, 85% of court-imposed fines and fees go uncollected because most individuals simply cannot afford to pay the fines and fees handed down to them.
What are people saying?
The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce published a blog stating that it is time to modernize Oklahoma’s criminal code and has included the need for felony reclassification as part of its policy agenda for the legislative session.
Timothy Tardibono, executive director of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council said, “This legislation is an important step in modernizing Oklahoma’s criminal code, bringing badly needed consistency and clarity to a confusing and outdated system.”
The American Conservative Union supports H.B. 1792 and recently published an issue brief on the need for Oklahoma to standardize its criminal code and establish a felony classification system that will bring consistency, proportionality, and predictability to the state’s sentencing laws. The brief urges legislators to act in this session to “bolster public safety, increase trust in the criminal justice system, reduce the tax burden on Oklahomans, and further lower the incarceration rate.”
Right on Crime supports H.B. 1792 and has applauded the House for approving the legislation this session.
Stephanie Henson, Vice President of League of Women Voters Oklahoma, voiced support for H.B. 1792 in a recent op-ed for The City Sentinel online, writing, “For over 30 years, Oklahoma has been one of the leading incarcerators of women in the nation. … Our state has paved a terrible road that leads to incarceration for women rather than investing in the treatment or support they need. … House Bill 1792, would create a standard felony classification system with clear and consistent sentencing ranges based on the seriousness of the offense and the individual’s criminal history…. [and] would help modernize our justice system and reduce the number of women who are unfairly punished or receive unnecessarily long prison sentences. … The criminal justice reforms being considered this session must be a part of that progress and the League of Women Voters urges all legislators to support them.”
Representative Osburn said, “We are working with stakeholders on all sides of this issue to make sure this legislation moves the needle in a positive way. It is important that the resulting system is constructive and workable for law enforcement, prosecutors and judges while making a meaningful impact on the state’s prison population.”
Note: Patrick B. McGuigan, founder and publisher of CapitolBeatOK.com, has written on criminal justice policy issues frequently since the 1980s. He is the co-editor of ‘Crime and Punishment in Modern America.’ The material for this analysis of pending legislation at the Oklahoma Legislature was transmitted to him in April 2023 from a trusted source. McGuigan agrees with its conclusions concerning public policy in the state of Oklahoma. CapitolBeatOK.com is an independent, non-partisan and locally-managed news service based in Oklahoma City.