Oklahoma has an earned reputation as a tough-on-crime state. With about 26,000 of its population currently in prison, its incarceration rate ranks near the highest in the nation for men, and is the highest for women. There are presently more than 100 types of crimes in this state that carry a mandatory minimum sentence, some of 20 years or longer, including life sentences.
Perhaps the most daunting of these automatic sentencing statutes is the Oklahoma’s “three strikes” law that applies to felony drug convictions, and which results in mandatory prison terms of life without the possibility of parole for those convicted of a drug trafficking crime when they already have two prior drug-related convictions. Whether the third strike involved an act of violence is immaterial; of the more than 50 prison inmates currently serving three-strike-based life sentences, only three of them actually committed a violent crime.
Even for those who support mandatory minimum sentence laws, however, it may be possible to have too much of a good thing. A serious overcrowding problem in the state’s prison system, coupled with a line of reasoning that locking a person away for the rest of his life for non-violent offenses is unnecessarily harsh punishment, is causing some representatives in the state legislature to reconsider mandatory minimum sentences for some types of crimes.
The reasoning behind this desire to take another look at how criminal sentences apply is not hard to understand. Aside from a sense of compassion and the desire to put fewer people behind bars for lengthy incarceration periods, the argument is also being advanced — by some state prosecuting attorneys, among others — that putting a jury in the position of seeing a defendant sent to prison for a seemingly disproportionate length of time can lead to “get tough” laws backfiring. These prosecutors have related stories, based on personal observation, that sometimes juries will refuse to convict a defendant because they think that the automatic penalty is too severe. The net effect of such balking juries is that they can not only defeat the idea behind mandatory minimum sentences but actually end up letting real criminal law violators go free even when they might otherwise be inclined to convict.
Proposed legislation to address these problems had taken the form of two bills. House Bill 1518 (known as the Justice Safety Valve Act) and House Bill 1574 (which would address the “three strikes” automatic sentencing) would allow judges in certain non-violent criminal trials, including those dealing with drug crimes, to exercise some discretion when it comes to imposing sentences after convictions. “Allowing judges to be judges” is one way that proponents of the law have described its intent. The Governor has signed the Justice Safety Valve Act.
The Justice Safety Valve Act does not give judges discretion in all cases. Violent crimes, sex crimes requiring entry into the state’s sex offender registry, repeat crimes within a ten-year span and some organized crimes would still be subject to mandatory minimum sentences.
The passage of this act may create some opportunities for lesser sentences, but it is still up to the defendant’s legal defense team to persuade the judge that a lesser form of punishment, perhaps including alternative sanctions not requiring prison time, is a good choice. The selection of skilled and experienced Oklahoma criminal defense lawyers might soon become even more important to those seeking either acquittal or, if that is not possible, something less than a reflexive, mandatory-minimum sentence.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Oklahoma, contact the seasoned Oklahoma criminal defense lawyers at 405-231-5600 for your free consultation.