Oklahoma’s recent success in reducing our prison population is hard won. Sentencing reforms passed by voters in 2016 and by the Legislature in 2018 have contributed to a 23% drop in the prison population since it peaked in 2016. Though much remains to be done, the Oklahoma Policy Institute has been tracking the effects of justice reform in courts, jails, and prisons as reforms have taken hold and found a steady move towards a less punitive approach to offenses like drug possession and burglary.
This post examines reforms to another set of common criminal offenses and their effects on Oklahomans. Senate Bill 793, passed in 2018, addressed the state’s high incarceration rate of Oklahomans convicted of drug crimes; the same year, State Question 788 legalized medical marijuana and directly and indirectly reduced punishments for many marijuana-related offenses. These two measures have reduced incarceration rates, which will stimulate the economy by keeping people in the workforce and helping keep families together. Immediate impacts of these reforms include common-sense reductions in harsh sentence lengths for certain drug charges, as well as the legalization of medical marijuana. Court data indicate that after SB 793 took effect, charges of possession with intent to distribute decreased substantially statewide, and these reductions were likely also due in part to the passage of SQ 788.
Senate Bill 793 reduced some of Oklahoma’s harsh drug crime sentencing practices
The legislature showed a commitment to criminal justice reform by approving SB 793 in 2018. This bill reduced the punishment for transporting and possessing with intent to distribute a dangerous controlled substance. Previously, an individual living in Oklahoma could receive between five years to life in prison for a Schedule I or II drug. As a result of SB 793, Oklahomans can no longer receive life sentences for this crime, and the maximum sentence is seven years. The measure also removed the option of life without parole for a drug trafficking charge. Since Oklahoma prison sentences for these and other drug crimes are 79 percent longer than the national average, these reforms will help reduce the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes in Oklahoma. Research shows that incarceration for nonviolent crimes often does not achieve its intended goal of rehabilitation; rather, it makes people more likely to commit another crime after release. These reforms build on SQ 780, passed by voters in 2016, ensuring no one newly convicted of simple drug possession receives a prison sentence.
SQ 788’s legalization of medical marijuana brought dramatic changes to laws around the drug
Passed in June 2018, SQ 788 legalized medical marijuana and took effect in August of that year. SQ 788 made acquiring a medical marijuana license a possibility for many Oklahomans and dramatically changed possession of marijuana laws. Now, the penalty for someone carrying a small amount of marijuana without a medical marijuana license, but who can state a medical condition, is just a misdemeanor charge and a fine. Because this law does not specify a quantity of marijuana in determining between simple possession (a misdemeanor) and possession with intent to distribute (a felony), the line between the two charges often depends on the judgment of the prosecutor on the case. Nevertheless, the legalization of medical marijuana and relaxation of drug possession laws around marijuana likely influenced prosecutors’ decisions towards fewer felony charges after SQ 788 took effect.
Additionally, SQ 788 outlines guidelines for the application process of a medical marijuana license. As of January 5, 2021, there are more than 379,590 Oklahomans with an active medical marijuana license, with more applications submitted every day. As more Oklahomans gain access to medical marijuana, incarceration rates are decreasing for marijuana-related offenses.
SB 793 led to a sharp reduction in charges filed for possession with intent to distribute
OK Policy analyzed the downward trend for possession with intent to distribute and trafficking cases to determine the impacts of SB 793 and SQ 788. Our analysis found that both measures likely contributed to the reduction since the measures significantly overlap both in content and when they were implemented. Compared to the year prior to November 2018 when SB 793 took effect, possession with intent to distribute charges decreased statewide by about 76 cases per month, or roughly 29 percent.
SB 793 also caused a reduction in prison sentences
The number of prison sentences for possession with intent to distribute charges has significantly decreased, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections from January 1, 2017 to February 29, 2020. This was to be expected due to the drop in the number of these charges being filed, as described above. Compared to the previous year after reforms in 2018, the number of people sentenced to prison for possession with intent to distribute decreased on average by about 29 cases per month, or roughly 22 percent. As with the trend in the number of cases filed, the timing of the reduction aligns better with the implementation of SB 793 than with SQ 788, but both reforms likely contributed to the decrease. There was not a significant change in the number of individuals sentenced to prison for trafficking charges after the implementation of either reform.
These justice reform efforts are helping reduce prison and jail populations
At the beginning of 2018, Oklahoma prisons incarcerated more men and women per capita than any other state in the U.S, which harmed families, disrupted the economy, and strained the state budget. In recent years, criminal justice reform efforts have begun to reverse this trend. Justice reform is crucial to the future of Oklahoma. With drug reforms like SQ 793 and SB 788, fewer people are becoming involved with the justice system, thus preventing the next generation from continuing the cycle of incarceration. This measurable success should be encouraging for reform advocates who want to push for sentencing reform during the 2021 legislative session.
About the Author
Liz Spencer, Open Justice Oklahoma Intern – Liz is a senior at the University of Oklahoma studying Management Information Systems, with her main focus being in data analytics. Her areas of political interest include promoting legislation for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW), Oklahoma’s incarceration policies, and violence against women.