SQ 805’s defeat doesn’t signal end of justice reform efforts (Capitol Update)

Supporters of criminal justice reform are surely feeling the sting of defeat after Tuesday’s 61 percent to 39 percent loss of State Question 805. The measure would have banned enhancing penalties for a second or subsequent conviction for nonviolent offenses. Opponents cast the vote as a public safety issue in a time when civil unrest and polarization was top of mind for voters. Some opposed SQ 805 on the basis that domestic violence inexplicably had not been listed as a violent crime by statute. They remained unconvinced by arguments that domestic violence penalties could be enhanced by other means.

A little history should give criminal justice reformers reason to take heart.

After years of what they felt was insufficient funding by the Legislature, transportation supporters circulated an initiative petition to raise the gasoline and diesel fuel tax by 5- and 8-cents per gallon, respectively. On September 13, 2005, in the most lopsided defeat of a state question in history, voters defeated SQ 723 that would have provided $150 million per year for roads and bridges, 87 percent to 13 percent.

At the time Neal McCaleb, chairman of Oklahomans for Safe Bridges and Roads, said, “The numbers clearly mean the voters have rejected a gas tax increase as a method of funding improvement of roads and bridges. The overwhelming defeat of State Question 723 does not mean Oklahomans are against improving highways and bridges. This rejection puts the issue squarely in the hands of the Legislature.”

Since 2006, the Oklahoma Legislature has dedicated a portion “off-the-top” of the state income tax for roads and bridges to the tune of nearly $600 million per year in recent years, plus the fuel tax. Legislators are so committed to road money they allowed the Department of Transportation to borrow $200 million with bonds when they used some of the off-the-top money to fill last year’s budget gap. This is quite a feat in the aftermath of a state question that took a historic drubbing at the polls.

The same thing can and should happen in the wake of the SQ 805 defeat. “State Question 805 is a drop in the bucket on what needs to happen with regards to Oklahoma,” Oklahoma County Public Defender Bob Ravitz said. “We need to have realistic sentencing ranges and realistic policies with regards to sentencing.”

Republican Tommie Johnson III, who was elected Oklahoma County Sheriff on Tuesday night, said, “I am the first person who will fight for criminal justice reform, and criminal justice reform needs to happen so desperately. But I don’t want to do it if it puts public safety in jeopardy.”

Tricia Everest, chairwoman of Oklahomans United Against 805, said, “Oklahomans do want reform, they just want responsible reform. Now the responsible work resumes. Most every Oklahoman agrees more can be done to break the cycle of crime that is spurred by incarceration. It is time to bring all stakeholders to the table and really do the hard work of making our state safer in a sustainable and cost-efficient manner.” 

If legislators can rise to the occasion for roads, surely, they will do so to save wasted tax dollars and damaged lives.


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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