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Crime and punishment

Reduced sentences mean less property crime in Oklahoma

Before 2016, stealing a smartphone in Oklahoma could be charged as a felony with the possibility of prison time. The passage of SQ 780 raised the felony theft threshold in Oklahoma from $500 to $1,000, meaning a person has to steal something worth more than $1,000 to be charged with felony larceny.

These changes went into effect in July 2017, and the early returns are very encouraging: Statewide reports of theft fell in Oklahoma between 2016 and 2017. After SQ 780 reduced minor property crimes to misdemeanors, rates of theft continued to fall. Lower crime numbers, coupled with the sharp decline in felony filings, strongly support the idea that smart justice reform can lead to both less crime and less punishment. These positive trends should help to sustain justice reform efforts as Oklahoma works to reduce its world-leading incarceration rate.

Opponents of recent Oklahoma justice reforms argued that criminality and theft would rise if Oklahoma’s felony theft amount was lowered. The data shows that the opposite has occurred. There were 3,443 fewer reports of larceny in 2017 than 2016. Felony cases involving property crime this year are also down 29 percent from 2017. SQ 780 is only gradually beginning to alter prison admission rates, but these early results are promising.

It’s hard to argue that low-level thieves and shoplifters are a serious threat to public safety, but nonviolent property crime was a major driver of incarceration in this state prior to recent reforms. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of individuals entering the Oklahoma prison system for property offenses grew by 29 percent. Research shows that these harsh punishments do little to deter crime, and a low-level offenders’ felony conviction carries lifelong consequences which can often lead to higher rates of recidivism.

On the other hand, the investments in substance abuse and mental health treatment envisioned by SQ 780 and SQ 781 are proven to reduce crime. A 10 percent increase in the substance abuse treatment rate reduces robbery and larceny theft rates by about 3 percent on average. Less punitive criminal penalties, economic development, education, and investments in mental health and substance abuse treatment all lead to better outcomes than so called “Tough on Crime” laws.

Reducing the criminal penalty for low-level theft has become a common part of justice reform efforts across the nation. Thirty-
nine states have raised their felony theft threshold since 2000, and whether a state sets its felony theft amount at $500, $1,000, or $2,000, there seems to be no significant effect on property crime and larceny rates.

Criminality seems to be driven by a lack of access to education, mental health services, and employment, and having a felony conviction makes each of these deficits more likely. The numbers tell a clear story. Reports of theft are falling as our system has grown less punitive. We should not ignore these facts. Evidence-based justice should force us to reject the harsh sentences and threat-based methods of the recent past. Theft is often driven by need, and a smart justice system should acknowledge these issues. It shouldn’t make them worse.

Damion Shade is a policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute.

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