SQ 780 is already reshaping Oklahoma’s justice system

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.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an 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.

4 thoughts on “SQ 780 is already reshaping Oklahoma’s justice system

  1. This is a great thing for people. These people on drugs need help, drug reabilitation and mental health help not locked up in a prison somewhere. Save the prison for criminals violating people and doing crimes against people and business! Cannabis/ Marijuana should not even be considered an illegal drug it should not be illegal or on any drug schedule! That should be the crime keeping people from using a plant that has never killed anyone and it medically can save people!!???????????????????????????????? Keep up the good work Oklahoma shut down some prisons and jails!!

  2. If the law changes that went into effect last July had been made retroactive, we would have about 3/4 of a prison free to house inmates convicted of felonies. Nothing is being done to fix this -one sentence needs you be changed in the law. Almost 900 people remain in prison for crimes that are no longer felonies. Our legislature does not want to let them out to make more room. The state’s prison system is severely overcrowded and their solution is to build two new prisons.

  3. I agree! If drug possession is now a misdemeanor….why wouldn’t Oklahoman’s make this retro and release people doing time in overcrowded prisons? I can tell you from personal experience there are more drugs in prison than accessible on the street at any given time. They cost less and due to the fact rehabilitation is only optional in Oklahoma prison yards….majority of inmates are using. I can’t expect anyone to understand the “yard” environment unless you yourself have been there, but there are very few rehabilitation programs in prison and the ones that are available are restricted to a very few number of inmates at a time. With rehab programs being very few, and the number of people being served at any given “class” size being very small proportionate to the number of inmates on the yard….recovery is not available and so the cycle continues except the concentration and saturation of addiction is nearly 100% more pronounced than on the street. There aren’t any “normal” people walking around on the yard, I promise. The mentality of Correctional Officers mimics inmate mentality and the only way I remained substance free during my time in prison was due to the love that came in through prison ministry alone. Even 12 steps meeting are being run by inmates who don’t have enough experience or material or guidelines to facilitate meetings. Someone needs to step inside the fence and reform the availability and the facilitation of recovery. This is where we fail to recognize what is really happening inside the fence. I have been corrected, but recidivism is somewhere around 85%….I am proud to be part of the other 15%….but it wasn’t easy and it sometimes endangered me physically as well as emotionally because prison mentality is very VERY different and very Very had to be unaffected by. Lets try something different and make recovery possible to ANY ADDICT who wants it, whether they are on a yard or in the world.

  4. Wish they would have done this many years ago in 1995 when I was 16 years old I was given 30 years for 3 empty bagges possession with intent to distribute because the amount of bagges not the amount of drugs

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