New data shows that State Question 780 reduced felony filings by over 14,000 across Oklahoma’s District Courts in its first year in a major realignment of how the state deals with low-level offenses. SQ 780, approved by voters by a wide margin in 2016, reclassified simple drug possession and many minor property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. Assessing the First Year of SQ 780, a new report from Open Justice Oklahoma, uses original data from aggregated District Court criminal filings in the last ten years to evaluate the impact of the justice reform ballot measure in FY 2018. Open Justice Oklahoma, a project of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, seeks to improve understanding of our justice system through analysis of public data. The data reveal several trends:
- SQ 780 reversed a long trend of increasing felony and decreasing misdemeanor filings across the state. Total felony filings fell by 14,141, or 28.4 percent, in FY 2018, while total misdemeanors rose by 6,437, or 13.6 percent.
- Cases involving reclassified charges shifted sharply from felony to misdemeanor in FY 2018. The number of felony cases filed involving simple drug possession fell by 14,164, or 74.9 percent, and felony cases involving property crimes fell by 8,095, or 29 percent, from FY 2017 to FY 2018. Misdemeanor cases involving drug possession rose by over 160 percent, while those involving property crimes rose by over 10 percent.
- Filing of other cases showed little change statewide in FY 2018, but felony cases filed with possession with intent to distribute (PWID) charges rose slightly. The number of felony cases involving PWID rose by 431, or 13.6 percent, but the number filed in FY 2018 (3,604) was only slightly more than were filed in FY 2016 (3,515). The number of felony cases involving drug trafficking changed by less than one percent.
- The effects of SQ 780 varied across counties and District Attorney districts. Nearly all counties saw declines in felony filings; in some rural counties, like Cotton and Harper Counties, felonies dropped by more than 50 percent. Some counties saw increases in PWID cases of 200 percent or more in FY 2018 compared to the average of the previous three years, including Haskell and Dewey Counties; the patterns in these mostly rural counties suggest there could be a shift toward harsher filing practices.
It is important to note that these numbers only reflect changes in District Court case filings, the first stage in the criminal justice process; they do not describe convictions or sentences. Data from the Department of Corrections show that the number of people entering prison for offenses reclassified under SQ 780 barely fell in FY 2018. This is because many people sent to prison for low-level offenses are originally sentenced to supervision or a diversion program, like probation, District Attorney supervision, or drug court, but have their supervision revoked when they violate their terms (e.g., by committing another offense or failing a drug test). SQ 780 should result in markedly lower prison admissions in the coming years, especially because the reclassified offenses are some of the most common controlling offenses for people entering prison. But people who were convicted of simple drug possession before July 1, 2017 and who are still under supervision will likely continue to go to prison for probation violations in the meantime.
These numbers shed an important light on key criminal justice debates. The first goal of SQ 780 was to reduce punishments for low-level crimes, and it is certainly doing that. Because of SQ 780, about 14,000 Oklahomans avoided a felony charge last year; this is an enormous achievement. We know that a felony conviction drastically reduces a person’s chances of getting a job, hangs the threat of prison over their head, saddles them with thousands of dollars in fines and fees, and often takes away their ability to drive legally. These consequences cause a massive amount of stress that is frequently counterproductive, which can drive a person back to substance abuse. Simply removing the stigma of a felony conviction from people with addiction is a positive step, and for this alone, SQ 780 has been a resounding success.
As we recently pointed out, the reduced punishments that SQ 780 put into place clearly did not encourage more crime. Reported larceny crimes were falling before SQ 780 went into effect and continued to fall afterward. Oklahoma is demonstrating, as many other states have before, that there is no tension between less crime and less punishment.
The court data also provide important information on how prosecutors have responded to SQ 780. Many advocates for SQ 780 raised the concern that, once simple drug possession was reclassified as a misdemeanor, prosecutors could start charging other felonies, like possession with intent to distribute (PWID), at higher rates. The data show that PWID cases did rise, from 3,176 in FY 2017 to 3,607 in FY 2018 – an increase of 431 cases, or about 13 percent. The total number of felony cases filed without SQ 780 offenses barely changed at all, suggesting that there was no uniform statewide change in prosecutorial charging practices.
However, in some counties, there does appear to be a shift toward harsher charges. Haskell County, for example, averaged 7 PWID cases per year in 2015-2017, but rose to 35 – a 400 percent increase – in FY 2018. The number of simple possession cases fell by 50, suggesting that over half of the cases filed as simple possession previous to SQ 780 are now being prosecuted as felony PWID cases. Similar trends in counties including Logan, Payne, Johnston, and Atoka warrant further investigation.
While there is no evidence of a statewide shift in charging practices by prosecutors, the growing prison admissions numbers highlighted by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and FWD.us also raise the possibility that prosecutors have become more punitive towards people who are newly convicted or on probation. That may be the case, but the data used in this report cannot answer those questions.
Despite this limitation, the Open Justice Oklahoma report shows the power of court records to answer pressing questions about our justice system. All Oklahomans depend on our justice system to deal with crime and resolve disputes, and Open Justice Oklahoma will continue to conduct innovative analysis of court records to ensure transparency and accountability of these critical institutions.