`Truth-in-Sentencing' Debate Continues

Article excerpt

It's an ironic twist to the Oklahoma Legislature's legacy of public service that the issue stirring the most controversy and causing the most confusion early in the 1998 session is a subject that is supposed to be about truth.

The term "truth-in-sentencing" was coined by lawmakers last year to describe the massive overhaul of Oklahoma's criminal justice system passed by the 1997 Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Frank Keating.

But lingering debate and disagreement over what the truth-in- sentencing bill does and how much it will cost has left many involved in the fray wondering what's true and what's not. "I'm not sure I know what the truth is," said Mike Davenport, a victims rights advocate who has analyzed the bill for his Edmond- based group, Stop Turning Out Prisoners. The truth-in-sentencing bill requires violent offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences. Non-violent offenders would have to serve 75 percent. Violent offenders currently serve an average of 48 percent of their sentences and non-violent offenders serve 37 percent, according to the Department of Corrections. But opponents say sentencing guidelines in the truth-in-sentencing package dramatically reduce sentences for many crimes and would prevent 67 percent of the people who went to prison in 1996 from going today. "Forty-eight percent of 20 years is a hell of a lot better then 85 percent of five," said Davenport. He said his analysis shows that the average offender in Oklahoma would serve between 47.7 percent and 61.7 percent less time under truth-in-sentencing for such crimes as murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, rape and lewd molestation. Separate studies conducted by proponents of last year's bill tell a different story. A random survey conducted by the Corrections Department found that 62 of 65 violent inmates would serve longer sentences under truth- in- sentencing's guidelines than they would under criminal sentences the bill replaced. The new sentences are scheduled to go into effect July 1. "When you get past all the scare stories and misleading statistics, the fact is truth-in-sentencing is a lot tougher on violent criminals than the old system was," Sen. Cal Hobson, D- Lexington, said. Truth-in-sentencing does away with jury sentencing, makes prison sentences more uniform and would eliminate the sensational but meaningless 100- and 200-year sentences frequently returned by Oklahoma juries, according to its supporters. Sentences exceeding 45 years are still treated as 45-year sentences for parole consideration. "No matter who you are, no matter what your connections, if you do the crime you'll do the time under truth-in-sentencing," Hobson said. But Davenport as well as many prosecutors and law enforcement officials have assailed last year's bill -- House Bill 1213. They believe it is soft on crime and would not bring about "truth" in public safety. …