Newsbrief: Oklahoma Report Urges Sanity in Sentencing 2/21/03

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The Oklahoma Sentencing Commission will recommend major changes in Oklahoma sentencing policies as part of an effort to rein in out of control prison spending in the Sooner State, the Daily Oklahoman reported Wednesday. The recommendation will come as the state grapples with a prison budget that has doubled to $400 million per year in the last decade, largely driven by Oklahoma politicians' reflexive embrace of ever harsher drug sentences. Currently, drug offenders make up a full third of all new prisoners, according to the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center, a state agency (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/264.html#oklahomaprisons).

The Daily Oklahoman received an advance copy of a sentencing reform report produced by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center for the Sentencing Commission, and reported that it "suggests major reforms in how criminals, specifically drug offenders, are sentenced in Oklahoma."

According to the Oklahoman, the report calls for:

  • Intermediate sanctions for probation and parole violations. Under current law, probation or parole violators are sent to prison.
  • Quantity thresholds for drug crimes, especially methamphetamine offenses. Oklahoma law currently allows no discretion for certain cocaine and meth offenses.
  • Lower sentences for "low-level" meth manufacturing, particularly when the drug is made for personal use and not for sale.
  • Increased use of misdemeanor convictions and community sentencing for drug offenders.
  • Lower sentences for drug possession.
  • Probation for nonviolent repeat offenders.
  • Allow probation for non-violent repeat offenders.
Oklahoma, a state where sentences in the centuries are not uncommon and thousand-year sentences not unheard of, has a history of being harsh with drug offenders, particularly those identified with the demon drug du jour, in the present case, methamphetamine. Under current Oklahoma law, meth cooks can receive life in prison. But the state is having problems affording the prison sentences it loves to dish out.

Lowering the number of drug offenders could save big money, Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie told the Oklahoman. "That seems to be the largest category of people coming in, is drug crimes," Massie said. "It's been that way for several years. "The major way we're going to reduce our budget is if the population (of prisoners) goes down."

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