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Governor Fallin signs sentencing reform bill

OKLAHOMA CITY_ Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill that will allow judges to impose shorter sentences for some nonviolent crimes.

House Bill 1518 allows judges to depart from mandatory minimum terms if they believe the minimum sentence is “not necessary for the protection of the public” and could “result in substantial injustice to the defendant.” Freed from having to impose a mandatory sentence, a judge in some cases could choose to divert the offender to a program to deal with underlying mental health or drug abuse issues. Judges who depart from minimum mandatory sentencing will have to file a report with the district court clerk's office. Court clerks, in turn, will file an annual report with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which will post the information on its website.

The measure, called the Justice Safety Valve Act, is an attempt to divert more nonviolent offenders into alternative programs and away from long terms in the state's overcrowded prisons. The governor spoke in favor of sentencing reform during her State of the State address to lawmakers earlier this year.

“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,” said Fallin. “Many of our current inmates 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.”

Oklahoma has the top incarceration rate in the nation for women and one of the top for men. Contributing to those high rates are the more than 100 crimes that carry lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences.

HB 1518's primary author was Rep. Pam Peterson and its main sponsor was Sen. Wayne Shaw. It takes effect November 1.

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