Sorrow. Anger. Legislate.
State Rep. Scott Fetgatter’s stages of grief have resulted in him pushing for a bill that would lengthen the prison sentence for offenders of serious sex crimes, his response to this month’s killing of six people in his eastern Oklahoma district.
Jesse McFadden, who police say shot to death six people, including five teenagers, was released from prison a few years ago after serving 85% of a 20-year sentence for rape, the current minimum for that conviction before prison officials can release an inmate early. McFadden also faced additional charges of texting a minor and possessing juvenile pornography while in prison.
Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, now wants people like McFadden to serve every day of their original sentence, which is what he is proposing for some of the most serious sex crimes, including rape, child molestation and possession of juvenile pornography.
Getting a new bill passed with just a couple of weeks left in the legislative session is a tough task, especially as much of the work in the state Legislature has slowed considerably due to testy budget negotiations.
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But Fetgatter believes he can get his proposal through.
“When I get on top of something, I just stay on it like a bulldog,” said Fetgatter, comparing himself to the mascot of his former high school in Okmulgee, a town about 15 miles north of Henryetta, where McFadden killed six before killing himself. “I will bulldog this thing to the very end.”
The horrific events in Henryetta have put the state’s sex offender laws in the spotlight, and some Oklahomans are calling for tougher penalties. Thousands have signed an online petition asking that serious sex offenses carry a lifetime prison sentence — “If they have the nerve to ruin a child’s chance at a normal life, they deserve NO SECOND CHANCES,” the Change.org petition states.
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Tougher punishments for sex crimes also have become part of the national political conversation, including in Florida, where governor and likely 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill that would make child rape subject to the death penalty.
The new law is at odds with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but DeSantis said he believes a challenge to the precedent could be successful in the conservative-leaning court.
“We think that in the worst of the worst cases, the only appropriate punishment is the ultimate punishment,” DeSantis, a Republican, said at a recent news conference.
Representative wants some sex offenders to serve every day of their sentence
Fetgatter said a reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court on the death penalty for serious sex crimes against children could warrant a legislative discussion in Oklahoma, and he also believes the sex offender registry needs to be reviewed.
But for now, with a little more than two weeks left in the legislative session, Fetgatter is focused on raising the minimum time served from 85% to 100% for six crimes — first-degree rape, child sex abuse, lewd acts to a child, aggravated child pornography, child prostitution, and human trafficking a minor for commercial sex, according to proposed bill language he shared with The Oklahoman.
“People who commit (these crimes) should not be getting out early; these are the people that really don’t need to be on the streets,” Fetgatter said.
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But Damion Shade, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said that increasing prison sentences might not be the answer.
“How many policies, laws, procedures and regulations that are currently in place … were ignored in the (Henryetta) case?” Shade asked.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections released McFadden early for good behavior even as he committed multiple felonies while in prison.
“You shouldn’t have to create new laws to say that if someone is incarcerated and charged with another significant and serious offense that Department of Corrections should take that into consideration,” Shade said. “And maybe that requires the Legislature to invest more staff and resources into the reentry process, which we absolutely support.”
Many also have criticized the time it took for the court system to process McFadden’s new case.
McFadden was arrested on his new charges after being released from prison but bonded out of jail.
“No one in the criminal legal reform movement advocates for unrehabilitated individuals who are suspected of serious violent offenses to be released early, full stop,” Shade said.
“Law enforcement and corrections officials only have so many resources, and so the question is what needs to happen so that law enforcement has the resources to pursue serious cases more quickly?”
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Fetgatter believes his bill will have support in the final weeks of the session
Fetgatter said he found a senator willing to put his proposed language into a bill still alive this session, a necessary procedure this late in the session.
In addition to raising the minimum time served to 100% of a sentence on several serious sex crimes, the bill also will seek to require courts to work faster when processing a current inmate who picks up another sex crime charge while still incarcerated.
“I think we are going to get this through (this month),” Fetgatter said on Thursday.
A spokesperson for the governor said he would not comment on pending or hypothetical legislation.
“However, I can tell you Governor Stitt firmly believes convicted sex offenders should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and will do everything in his power to keep Oklahomans safe,” said Kate Vesper, a spokesperson for Stitt. “Oklahoma is a proud law and order state, and the governor will continue (to) support our law enforcement officers and ensure they have the resources they need to protect Oklahomans.”
In recent years, Oklahoma lawmakers and voters have supported reform measures meant to decrease the state’s overcrowded prison system. The focus has mostly been on reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders.
“We have talked about criminal justice reform the entire time I’ve been at the Capitol for the past seven years,” Fetgatter said. “And we’ve looked only at taking low-level offenders and reducing their sentences. But we never have a discussion about high-level offenders. Are their sentences long enough?”
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Oklahoma has some of the toughest sentences in the nation for serious sex crimes, and multiple prosecutors say the 85% minimum gives some assurance to a victim that their attacker will serve the majority of their sentence.
If Oklahoma were to increase the minimum for serious sex crimes, it would be the only category of crimes with a mandatory 100%, other than life without parole convictions.
“I’ve had both Republicans and Democrats reaching out to me saying ‘we support you in this effort and let’s go get it done,’” Fetgatter said. “It’s not, I guess, the ideal scenario, but at the same time I’m happy to take it on so that these mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings at least have the sense that they were heard and they didn’t lose their loved ones in vain.”
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