Proposed bills again seek to undo will of the voters (Capitol Update)

From the beginning of statehood, Article 5, Section 1 of the Oklahoma Constitution has provided that,

“The Legislative authority of the State shall be vested in a Legislature, consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives; but the people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and amendments to the Constitution and to enact or reject the same at the polls independent of the Legislature, and also reserve power at their own option to approve or reject at the polls any act of the Legislature.”

I’m old enough to remember, if the people of Oklahoma passed a law at the polls, the legislature, out of respect for the people’s judgment and authority to legislate, would not even consider changing that law for many years into the future. Only four years ago on November 8, 2016, Oklahoma voters, in a large turnout, passed State Question 780 by a margin of 58.23 percent to 41.77 percent, a landslide by electoral standards. The law changed the classification of simple drug possession from felony to misdemeanor and raised the dollar amount that determines whether property crimes are a felony or misdemeanor from $500 to $1,000. It went into effect three and one-half years ago on July 1, 2017. 

There have been some in the legislature, beginning immediately after the passage of SQ 780, who argued that the people did not understand what they were doing, that they, the legislature, know better. This of course is nonsense. 

  1. The people understood they were tired of diverting millions in tax dollars to maintaining one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, close to twice the national average.
  2. The people understood that Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate did not make their communities any safer. 
  3. The people understood that harsh punishments of low-level crimes simply fill up prisons, and people who are sent to prison for low-level crimes are a greater threat to public safety when they are released. 
  4. The people understood that branding people with a felony conviction for simple drug possession or petit theft makes it nearly impossible for them to find decent employment, to take care of their families, and to repair their lives.

Incredibly, this week the Senate Public Safety Committee will hear three bills seeking to roll back the provisions of SQ 780 and return Oklahoma to long-term felony punishments for low-level offenses.

SB 670 makes possession or purchase of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school a felony with five-year imprisonment. Everyone wants schools to be safe, but sale or possession with intent to distribute drugs within 1,000 feet of a school is already a felony. SB 670 would make felons of people for simple possession of drugs, not selling them and would repeal the will of the people that simple possession calls for treatment, not prison.

SB 814 makes simple possession of controlled drugs a felony for anyone with multiple felony or misdemeanor drug possession convictions. Mental health or drug treatment professionals know that relapses are a heartbreaking but normal part of recovery for people addicted to drugs. Active and recovering addicts often accumulate drug convictions during relapse. SQ 780 provided for misdemeanor punishment with treatment for possession. With SB 814, the legislature would reverse that policy and return Oklahoma to filling prisons with people who are not selling drugs but simply possessing them.

SB 334 would chip away at the policy established in SQ 780 that raised the felony limit in theft cases from $500 to $1,000. The felony limit, by the way, in Texas is $1,500. When SQ 780 was passed, the law stated that when three or more separate theft offenses are committed within 90 days, the amounts can be aggregated. SB 334 would extend that period to one year, making it four times easier to reach the $1,000 felony limit. Everyone hates a thief, and thieves should be punished. The law provides that small-time thieves should go to county jail. The issue is, how smart is it to spend over $16,000 per year to provide housing, food, medical care, security, and prison administration to lock away a petit thief, then return him to the streets worse than before? SQ 780 said it’s time to find a better way. But SB 334 says keep filling the prisons, making the problem worse and punishing the taxpayers. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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