Oklahoma's Landmark Criminal Justice Reforms in 2024: A Step Towards Fairness and Efficiency

In 2024, Oklahoma continued on its historic journey to reform its criminal justice system with the passage of several groundbreaking bills. Among these, HB1792 introduces a new felony classification system, promising a more organized and equitable approach to sentencing. This reform is a significant milestone, addressing decades-old inconsistencies and inefficiencies in the state’s criminal code. An additional bill, SB1770 expands the Clean Slate law, offering a lifeline to those seeking to rebuild their lives post-incarceration by simplifying and broadening expungement opportunities. These legislative advancements, alongside other important bills, represent a crucial step forward in creating a fairer and more just system for all Oklahomans. However, there is still work to be done to refine these reforms and address ongoing challenges, ensuring that the state’s justice system continues to evolve in the right direction.

Felony Classification

HB1792 authored by Rep. Osburn and Sen. Rader creates a new felony classification system in Oklahoma. This bill will group all criminal felonies into “buckets” based on the seriousness of the offense and attach standardized sentencing ranges to each of the groupings. In doing so, Oklahoma will join a majority of states, including neighbors Kansas and Texas, and organize the criminal code in a way that makes sense for all criminal justice actors. Before the passage of HB1792, the state’s criminal code hadn’t seen a comprehensive update for over 30 years. Each individual crime had been added by lawmakers on an individual basis over the history of the state. The criminal code had never been consolidated nor had old and irrelevant crimes been removed, but all that changed with HB1792.  

Modernizing the criminal code is much more than a purely organizational reform for lawyers and judges. The criminal code wastes taxpayer money by encouraging inconsistent and variable sentences from courtroom to courtroom while also creating unnecessarily long and complicated trials due to unclear laws - all at the taxpayer's expense. Meanwhile, rural communities bear the brunt of the problem. Studies consistently show that sentencing in rural areas is more affected by extra-legal factors or factors that have nothing to do with the law, with one study showing available substance abuse resources decrease sentencing by three months on average. A lack of services to support individuals in rural communities means that those communities rely on the carceral system to fill those gaps, in part, because there is no other viable alternative.


HB1792 also eliminates the general enhancement statute for most low-level criminal offenses. The general enhancement statute increases the severity of penalties for repeat offenders or for committing specific types of crimes under certain conditions. In Oklahoma, before the passage of HB1792, a low-level property offense could receive a sentence of 2 years to life imprisonment under the general enhancement. While most individuals do not receive the high end of the general enhancement statute when they are sentenced, it does have an effect on plea bargaining which accounts for 98% of all criminal convictions nationwide. Eliminating the threat of life imprisonment or an otherwise lengthy sentence for a common offense should level the playing field in the plea bargaining department, and put criminal defendants in a better negotiating position.

However, there is still much work to be done on the bill. The new mandatory minimums conflict with parole eligibility which will limit the Governor’s constitutional right to pardons, commutations, and paroles. There also needs to be a reduction in overall prison beds. Oklahoma currently has the 4th highest incarceration rate but only the 17th highest prison admission rate with that difference being made up through excess sentence length. Responsibly lowering sentences will have a huge effect on our state. Given the effective date for HB1792 is January 1, 2026, the legislature will have another session to solve these issues.  

Clean Slate Expansion

Just two years ago - Oklahoma was celebrating the passage of a new Clean Slate law, which would make criminal record expungements automatic for qualifying individuals. In 2024, through SB1770 authored by Sen. Pugh and Rep. Nicole Miller, lawmakers have decided to expand on that landmark reform and add to the list of eligible individuals. Now, people exiting incarceration through pardons can have their Clean Slate eligible cases expunged automatically as well. This bill also cleans up language surrounding the expungement process, making it clear that one petition can resolve multiple expungement-eligible cases. Finally, the bill creates a new process for sending DNA exonerations automatically to OSBI for expungement purposes.

Clean Slate laws have numerous benefits. For example, it is estimated that the United States loses 87 billion dollars in GDP annually from keeping those with criminal records out of the workforce. According to a Stanford University study, the benefits of expungement, in the form of increased tax revenue and decreased spending on public assistance, outweigh the costs at a rate of $5,800 per person every year. In fact, if not for mass incarceration and the financial difficulties of having a criminal record, the nation’s poverty rate would have dropped by 20% from 1980 to 2004, saving millions in public assistance costs. Passing SB1770 and expanding the Clean Slate Law while easing the implementation process will help countless Oklahomans.

Other Important Criminal Justice Bills

SB1835: Survivors Justice Act

Senate Bill 1835 creates procedures for sentence mitigation for individuals who have been previous victims of family violence. The court must find by clear and convincing evidence that the previous abuse was related to and a substantial factor in the crime committed. Incarcerated individuals can apply for this mitigation. Additionally, the bill allows District Attorneys to file motions to vacate sentences if there is clear and convincing evidence of the individual's innocence.

SB11: Removes Ban on State Tuition Aid for Incarcerated Students

Senate Bill 11 eliminates the ban on incarcerated students receiving state tuition aid grants. Incarcerated students can now apply for aid if the program is not primarily virtual and if they are within five years of their release date.

HB3863: Includes Tribal Domestic Violence Shelters for Utility Exemptions

House Bill 3863 expands the list of entities that can attest to the presence of domestic violence for the exemption of a public utility’s initial credit and deposit requirements to include domestic violence shelters run by federally recognized Indian Tribes.

SB1711: Allows Arraignment by Videoconference

Senate Bill 1711 explicitly allows for arraignment by videoconference when an individual is in custody in another county. This measure is designed to reduce pretrial detention times by reducing the need for transport between counties.

HB1629: Restores Voting Rights

House Bill 1629 ensures that individuals who receive commutations, pardons, and other sentence discharges have their voting rights restored.

HB3546: Mandates Release on Cost Warrants

House Bill 3546 mandates release after 72 hours on a cost warrant and provides the possibility for early release if $100 is sent to each jurisdiction where costs are owed.

Oklahoma’s recent legislative achievements in criminal justice reform are cause for celebration. The implementation of HB1792 and the expansion of the Clean Slate law through SB1770 highlight a commitment to creating a more just and efficient legal system. These reforms are set to eliminate outdated and unjust sentencing practices and provide second chances for many Oklahomans. While these successes mark significant progress, the journey is far from over. Continuous efforts are needed to address remaining issues, such as the alignment of mandatory minimums with parole eligibility and the reduction of excessive sentences. By building on these successes and tackling ongoing challenges, Oklahoma can lead the way in criminal justice reform, fostering a system that is fair, just, and truly rehabilitative.