Sentencing Reform legislation, aimed at non-violent offenses, would protect safety, reduce prison population in Oklahoma: new analysis

Pat McGuigan 

A new fiscal analysis concludes proposed legislation from state Senator Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, could trim Oklahoma’s prison population by around 1,400 people over the next decade. That projection is based on provisions in the Rader Bill that would eliminate sentence enhancements for non-violent offenses. The analysis projects anticipated savings that could “fund victim support services, and support programs that address the root causes of crime — helping to make Oklahoma communities safer.” 

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) analysis projects savings of $137 million if the tendency of local prosecutors to apply “sentence enhancements for low-level, nonviolent offenses” is effectively curbed. In a press release, OCPA analysts note that prosecutors are applying such enhancements in 80 percent of eligible cases. 

According to a sketch of the underlying study, released today (Thursday, February 18) in Oklahoma City, the enhancements for non-violent offenses increase “prison time for people convicted of drug offenses, on average, by 61 percent (from 5.3 to 8.5 years) and for people convicted of property crimes by 47 percent (from 3.9 to 5.7 years). (These comparisons are based on people sent to prison for the same crimes and who had prior convictions, but who did not receive a sentence enhancement.)” 

As stated in the press release accompanying circulation of the OCPA study, “The overuse of sentence enhancements is a significant cause of Oklahoma’s unusually long prison sentences, which research has shown do not make communities safer.” 

Rader’s legislation is Senate Bill 704. A member of the state Legislature’s upper chamber since his election in 2016, Rader’s Tulsa roots run deep. He is a Will Rogers High School graduate and a 1978 graduate of the University of Tulsa, where he later served as head football coach. 
Jonathan Small, president of OCPA, said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, The City Sentinel and other news organizations, “Limiting sentence enhancements does not limit the baseline maximum sentence someone can receive. It just stops district attorneys from enhancing a sentencing to 18 years in prison for forging a check, which is usually a two year maximum sentence, because of prior offenses that occurred almost a decade prior.”

OCPA is a public policy research group generally designated as conservative in underlying philosophy. The group’s studies support limited government and a free-market economy. The group has for many years pressed for what are characterized as “right on crime” reforms for sentencing strictures. 

Small said in the February 18 press release,  “We know there are better, evidence-based ways to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively and efficiently, and the state needs to be a better steward of those funds.” 

Trent England, a policy policy specialist at OCPA, reflected, “The Department of Corrections spends more than half a billion dollars every year. That’s more than the state spends on public safety and mental health combined, but if we continue on our present course, it’s not enough. 
“Either Oklahoma taxpayers are going to spend a lot more on prisons, or we’re going to change course — and that starts by limiting our overuse of sentence enhancements.”

England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. 

Concerning analysis in the detailed study, Thursday’s press release continued:
“If sentence enhancement reforms are not passed, Oklahoma’s prison population will grow to more than 25,428 in the next 10 years. This is not due to more Oklahomans committing crimes, but because of policies that allow Oklahomans to be incarcerated for longer sentences. S.B. 704 will reduce the prison population by 1,400 while still keeping communities safe. 

The projected savings of $137 million from S.B. 704 could relieve budget pressure at the Department of Corrections, fund victim support services, and support programs that address the root causes of crime — helping to make Oklahoma communities safer. 
The OCPA analysis of Sen. Rader’s bill is entitled “Fiscal Analysis of Senate Bill 704: Oklahoma Taxpayers Could Save $137 million.” 

The study is detailed (several thousand words and 12 pages in length). The analysis seems carefully crafted to provide context and restraint in its conclusions. 

In the document, OCPA shared methodological assumptions and gives a range of possible outcomes from the hoped-for reforms in the Rader Bill. 

On the final page of the analysis the issue of taxpayer-savings is presented: 
“The minimum savings estimate uses only the marginal cost savings for the entire period. This is likely far too low because of the significant reduction below capacity. The maximum savings estimate uses the average cost savings for the entire period. This is likely too high because in the first year or two of SB 704 being in effect, it would not be possible to close a facility or otherwise cut fixed costs enough to achieve this level of savings. The expected savings estimate combines these two approaches by using the marginal cost savings for the first several years of the SB 704 projection but assuming that prison closures or other major adjustments based on the lower prison population would kick in during 2025, resulting in average cost savings being a more appropriate measure.” 

The full analysis can be viewed online. To read it, cut-and-paste this link:

NOTE: A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Pat McGuigan is the author of three books and editor of seven, including ‘Crime and Punishment in Modern America’ (1985).