Addressing misinformation about SQ 805

As Oklahomans prepare to vote on State Question 805 during the Nov. 3 general election, opponents have started attacking the justice reform measure in predictable ways, attempting to stir up fear through false and misleading claims. Opponents of SQ 805 are preying on emotions that have resulted in Oklahoma maintaining one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, driven by long and frequent prison sentences for all types of offenses. Four years ago, SQ 780, a ballot initiative to reclassify many drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, received similar attacks. Since that reform measure passed, Oklahoma has achieved great success in diverting people away from prison, while crime rates remain near all-time lows, contrary to the doomsday predictions by some District Attorneys and law enforcement officials.

As SQ 780 did before, SQ 805 provides a major step forward towards a more balanced approach to criminal justice, but it is far from radical. SQ 805 would end the practice of extending a prison sentence based on prior nonviolent convictions, but it would not prevent courts from taking into account past convictions, or prohibit further changes to sentencing laws. This measure places a cap on sentencing to make sure that the punishment fits the offense, preventing ever-lengthening prison terms for people with prior nonviolent convictions.

Sentencing can still take prior history into account if SQ 805 passes

Some District Attorneys have falsely claimed that SQ 805 eliminates the ability of courts to account for a person’s prior history of convictions. This simply isn’t true; if SQ 805 passes, courts can and will continue to take a person’s past behavior into account. 

Our state laws provide sentencing ranges to allow a judge to determine the most appropriate sentence for the crime. For example, though second degree burglary carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison, very few people receive a seven-year prison term for their first conviction. Maximum sentences should reflect the most severe punishment for an offense, but sentence enhancements can extend punishments to absurd lengths. They can lead to blatantly egregious situations like a woman facing 20 years in prison for petit larceny and drug possession.

Opponents have also argued that escalating domestic violence offenses cannot be met with increasing sentences if SQ 805 passes. However, Oklahoma statute already provides a separate felony offense of “domestic abuse with a prior pattern of physical abuse” that would apply to many of these cases and would not be changed by SQ 805. It’s also worth noting that Oklahoma’s current punitive response to domestic violence hasn’t produced meaningful accountability or made us any safer. With sentence enhancements in place, domestic abuse is on the rise in Oklahoma and our state has the third highest rate of women killed by men. Domestic violence is a serious problem here, but harsh sentencing guidelines for perpetrators can often be counterproductive. Survivors may be less likely to testify against an abuser they care for because their abusers may face long prison terms; this reticence to testify, in turn, makes cases harder to prosecute. As District Attorney Allan Grubb noted in July, our incarceration crisis harms survivors more than it helps them.

SQ 805 does not prohibit legislative changes to sentencing laws

Opponents have argued that because SQ 805 is a Constitutional amendment and freezes the list of violent offenses as it stood on January 1, 2020, the Legislature will not be able to add offenses that should be classified as violent. 

While SQ 805’s ballot language prevents the Legislature from changing the list of offenses that can be used for sentence enhancements, lawmakers retain complete control over sentencing ranges for all criminal offenses. The Legislature will still be able to change sentencing ranges to create higher maximums and to create new offenses. Sentence enhancements are currently used to extend sentences in four out of every five eligible cases; SQ 805 will ensure that people are not punished twice for the same offense.

SQ 805 is an important next step to reduce Oklahoma’s prison population

During the last two years, Oklahoma’s prison population has declined significantly since voters approved SQ 780 and lawmakers passed a justice reform package in 2018. Since peaking at more than 28,000 people in Oklahoma’s prison system, the number has dropped by nearly 5,000, or 17.5 percent, during the past two years. While that’s impressive progress, Oklahoma still maintains one of the nation’s top three highest incarceration rates.

For Oklahoma to approach the national average for incarceration rates, we need to reduce our prison population by an additional 6,500 people. To make that happen, we need to continue to take bold steps in the face of fear-based claims like those currently being pushed by SQ 805’s opponents. As Oklahomans cast their ballots, we should be wary of these latest attempts to spread fear in the service of maintaining a status quo that has done more harm than good.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Gentzler joined OK Policy in January of 2016 as a policy analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

5 thoughts on “Addressing misinformation about SQ 805

  1. Communication is a joke they denied my sons plus the new bills won’t help the guys locked up for petty crimes doing years for something stupid. Just because da and judges want to make a point or like to lock good people up who made mistakes. But people who hurt kids and kill others do short sentences if any at all its all about money not reform they are treated like dirt beaten and damn near starved. But no one want to stand up . With out money your nothing….

  2. You are disregarding the clause that deals with sentence REDUCTIONS if the prisoner is serving more time than he would have served for a previous, lesser offense.

  3. Apparently, you don’t understand that when the cops can’t arrest people for what is a crime, the numbers look low. But for those of us that live in crime riddled areas, like Miami, OK, it’s an f’ing nightmare! 780 needs to be repealed and punishment for crimes needs to be reinstated! Maybe people should be taught that consequences are needed to stop people from breaking the laws! Lightening up sentences, and not allowing the courts to know about previous “non-violent” offenses is BS! How would you feel about your mom, wife, daughter, or any person close to you that was assaulted and there is nothing you can do about it. All this BS is going to do is put us back in the wild west days, and people WILL take matters into their own hands. And you can bet your ass that they will be prosecuted!

  4. If it is so important to change laws so people who obviously continue to commit crimes don’t get longer sentences why don’t we just get rid of society laws all together let the criminals have everything. I was raised and teach my children respect others and their property and if you commit an offense there are consequences to our actions. They understand. So can criminals if they want to. Shortening sentences and keeping them out of consequences is not the answer VOTE NO

  5. Vote Yes on bill 805!! This will save lives. Families and many women who are in prison for longer than they deserve because their are no laws stopping these people from receiving harsh and injustice sentences!! Vote Yes!! & Let’s start HEALING our culture and our people!!

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