Oklahoma Legislature

This week Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin signed HB 1518, a bill to reform the state’s minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Far from giving a break to dangerous offenders, the Safety Valve Act gives judges discretion to give low level offenders less severe sentences on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, the act allows judges to place certain offenders into the mental health or drug treatment systems.

By allowing for this kind of sentencing nuance, the Sooner State hopes to rein in one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. At 659 prisoners per 100,000 residents, Oklahoma has the third highest proportion of its population behind bars of any state.

There is a growing chorus of Red states reforming their prison systems. When Texas passed its own prison reforms in 2007, it saw a decline in their prison population, a massive decline in their crime rate, and savings of $2 billion. Not a bad start from any perspective. Likewise, Georgia saved hundreds of millions after its own reforms.

Combined with the recent easing of occupational licensing rules, Oklahoma now joins these states in the front lines of criminal justice reform.  In her statement, Fallin assured Oklahomans that “Violent criminals will continue to be incarcerated, but the fact is that one in eleven Oklahomans serve time in prison at some point in their lives,” underscoring the urgency of prison population reduction.

Many of our current inmates,” Fallin continued, “are nonviolent offenders with drug abuse and alcohol problems; others have mental health issues. For some of these offenders, long sentences in state prisons increase the likelihood of escalated criminal behavior. This bill gives our judges the freedom they need to divert people who need treatment, rehabilitation and supervision to the appropriate facilities and programs.

Americans for Tax Reform would like to congratulate the Oklahoma legislature, which passed the reform by overwhelming margins, for their historic success. Hopefully, more states will follow suit as the modernization of America’s prisons continues.