New Laws Target Identify Theft, Child Molesters

Monday, October 22nd 2007, 12:01 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Two laws taking effect November 1 will increase the amount of prison time for identity thieves and child molesters.

Supporters say the laws are needed as a deterrent, but some lawmakers say they will compound a growing prison-overcrowding problem.

Under House Bill 1329, the penalty for committing identity theft goes from a maximum of two years to a minimum of one year and a maximum of five.

House Bill 1816 imposes a minimum 25-year prison sentence on anyone convicted of sexually abusing a child under 12. It is commonly known as Jessica's law, named for a Florida girl raped and murdered in 2005 by a convicted sex offender.

Senator Richard Lerblance, D-Hartshorne, said the Legislature has resisted fully funding the Department of Corrections, failing to factor in the cost of inmate growth caused by minimum sentences.

Lerblance was chairman of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission until recently. His replacement, Representative Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, says lawmakers should not be restrained from passing minimum sentences just because prisons are overcrowded.

"The Legislature has taken a measured look at the crimes they are addressing," Blackwell said.

The Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center has estimated the prison system will grow by 900 inmates in the next fiscal year, producing a $16 million gap in funding.

While the number of people being sentenced to prison has remained fairly consistent in recent years, the length of prison terms has increased.

In June 2000, only six inmates were serving 85% of their sentences. In April 2007, that number had increased to 3,671 inmates serving at least 85% of their original sentences.

"Minimum sentences have definitely contributed to the overcrowding of the prisons, and if we continue to increase punishment we are going to have no alternative other than keeping everyone locked up," Lerblance said.

He said while some want to talk about being tough on crime, they "are not being smart on crime by not fully funding corrections."

In the 2007 legislative session, he said, 77 bills were introduced that either created new crimes or increased the penalty for existing crimes. Only a handful were adopted.

He said consistency in sentencing is needed from county to county, along with expansion of the state's mental health and drug courts to keep lesser offenders out of prison and make more room for violent criminals.

"Drug addiction in the state of Oklahoma is rampant, and that is why our prisons are overcrowded," he said. "The people in Oklahoma and the Legislature are going to have to get out of the mind-set that we are going to be able to just lock people up to get rid of our drug problems."

Jerry Massie, DOC spokesman, said increasing minimum sentences would not be a problem if the Legislature would provide more funding. Consistent underfunding from the Legislature has reduced the department's ability to ease inmate overcrowding, he said. As of August, 25,278 inmates were in prison in Oklahoma.

Massie said an ongoing audit of the DOC, scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, will hopefully provide answers.

Blackwell, who replaced Lerblance as head of the sentencing commission, said it is the first responsibility of government to keep its people safe and that can include increasing the penalties for particularly heinous crimes like child molestation.

Identity theft has been on the rise, so it makes sense for lawmakers to increase the penalty as a deterrent, he said.

Blackwell said he agrees it is important for legislators to look at alternative programs for lesser offenders to bring balance to the criminal justice system.

"It is important to look at it and see if we have the right balance," he said.

Officials at the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource center say the cost to the DOC of a 25-year mandatory sentence for child molestation will be nominal in the first year, but will grow to $41.9 million by the 19th year it is in effect.

Watch the video: Law Will Impose Harsher Penalties For Child Molesters