Oklahoma has long been among the most punitive states in the country for drug crimes. For years, severe mandatory minimums and tough-on-crime attitudes contributed to simple drug possession being the most common charge for state prison admissions. In 2016, fed-up Oklahomans passed SQ 780, reclassifying simple drug possession as a misdemeanor and taking away the possibility of prison time for those whose most serious crime was having a controlled substance for personal use.
That law went into effect on July 1, 2017 and is already reshaping Oklahoma’s justice system. An analysis of court records* by OK Policy shows that the number of felony cases filed across the state dropped by 26 percent in the second half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. This change was accompanied by a smaller, but still significant, rise in misdemeanor cases filed. Together, these trends suggest that the law is working as intended, as simple drug possession cases – one of the most common charges in Oklahoma’s district courts – are now being charged as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
Felonies had been on the rise in the years before SQ 780
In the years leading up to recent reforms, there had been a clear trend towards more felonies being filed each year, accompanied by a steady decline in misdemeanor filings, according to the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s annual reports, which are the only official source of court data in the state. This could have been caused by a few different things. If more serious crimes were being committed each year, District Attorneys may have been devoting more resources to prosecuting felony cases and fewer to less serious crimes, resulting in more felonies being filed while they declined to prosecute cases that would otherwise be filed as misdemeanors. With DAs being forced to operate on increasingly tight budgets, it’s a good possibility that this was at least part of the story.
However, it’s also possible that DA’s had roughly the same types of cases referred to them by law enforcement, and prosecutors were choosing to file more the serious charges. It’s difficult to know for sure, but shifting attitudes or guidelines used by prosecutors likely contributed to the consistent uptick in felony filings.
Recent reforms turned criminal case filing trends upside down
SQ 780 took aim at simple drug possession and low-level property crimes, two of the most common charges filed in Oklahoma district courts. After SQ 780 took effect in July 2017 and drug possession was reclassified as a misdemeanor, felony filings dropped dramatically and stayed low the rest of the year. The number of felonies filed across the state in the second half of 2017 was 26 percent lower than in the same period the previous year.
However, the jump in misdemeanor charges happened at the beginning of 2017, not in July, which suggests that something other than SQ 780 contributed to this change. That’s where the Legislature also deserves some credit for taking action on justice reform. During the 2016 session, they passed several justice reform bills, including HB 2751, which raised the felony property crime threshold from $500 to $1,000, and HB 2472, which codified the ability of DAs to file many nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. Those reforms took effect November 1, 2016.
The effects of both SQ 780 and the 2016 legislative reforms are clear in court data collected by OK Policy. In January 2017, two months after the 2016 legislative reforms kicked in, misdemeanor filings rose sharply. In July 2017, felonies dropped sharply as SQ 780 took effect. This is very important, because a felony conviction is much more damaging to a person’s work and life prospects than a misdemeanor conviction. As more people end up with misdemeanors rather than felonies, they’re more likely to get their lives back on track and stay out of the justice system instead of entering a state of perpetual punishment.
Justice reform works, and there’s much more to be done
Oklahomans should be heartened by the early results of their vote to reorient the justice system toward rehabilitation and away from harsh punishment. Long one of the most punitive states in the country, we have been desperate for meaningful change.
The next step on this journey is clear: the Legislature must pass the proposals of the Justice Reform Task Force in 2018. We need to address the front door, the back door, and the trap door to incarceration. While previous reforms have reshaped the courts, they haven’t been far-reaching enough to significantly reduce Oklahoma’s incarceration rate, which is poised to become the highest in the country. Seeing the success of reforms so far should help to motivate legislators to take the next step with confidence.
*OK Policy gathered data on 134,752 felony cases and 136,552 misdemeanor cases filed in calendar years 2015 to 2017 for which information was publicly available in January 2018. These numbers are significantly lower than official filing numbers reported in OSCN annual reports, which is likely due in part to OSCN counting records that have been expunged (and not publicly available) as well as differences in counting methodology. OSCN case filing totals are reported by each District Court and do not appear to follow a standard methodology.