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Overcriminalizing the Sooner State: A Primer and Possible Reforms for Oklahoma

In Oklahoma, residents face an array of criminally enforceable rules and regulations covering ordinary business and personal conduct. These rules often place individuals in legal jeopardy for unknowingly engaging in seemingly innocuous, but nonetheless illegal, conduct. Some arrests in the Sooner State border on the absurd, such as the case of local bartender Ian McDermid: he was arrested for violating state liquor regulations by infusing vodka with pickles and bacon to make specialty cocktails.

The breadth and complexity of Oklahoma’s criminal law cause citizens to face a number of serious risks: unintentionally violating rules that do not proscribe self-evidently wrong conduct; the risks inherent in the vast jurisdictional variations in prosecutions arising from a voluminous and complex body of criminal laws; and the diversion of scarce resources away from the enforcement of serious violent and property crimes. To address the overcriminalization problem, Oklahoma policymakers should:

  1. Create a bipartisan legislative task force. Conduct hearings and set guiding principles for lawmakers when creating new criminal offenses, with an emphasis on organizing and clarifying criminal laws for state residents.
  2. Create a commission to review the criminal law. Engage in a comprehensive review of the criminal law with the aim of consolidating, clarifying, and optimizing the state’s current criminal statutes and regulations.
  3. Enact a default mens rea provision. Ensure that being convicted of a crime requires a showing of intent—unless the legislature clearly specifies otherwise.

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