There’s a narrative being developed by sheriffs and district attorneys about the consequences of passage by the people of SQ 780 and 781. SQ 780 reclassified simple possession of prohibited drugs from felony to misdemeanor and raised the felony threshold for some property crimes. SQ 781 earmarked the savings from fewer prison sentences to drug treatment programs. Most DAs and law enforcement vocally opposed the ballot measures at the time they were passed.
In an interim study in the House Judiciary Committee last week, DAs and sheriffs complained there have been no savings because the lesser drug penalties have removed the “hammer” incentivizing “addicts” to enter drug treatment programs because they no longer fear prison. Strangely, in the same hearing, a district attorney argued that addicts would rather go to prison than drug treatment because “when they go to DOC (Department of Corrections), they’re going to get an ankle bracelet and they’re going to be back home within 90 days and they’re going to continue their lifestyle with no supervision and it’s a problem.”
It’s no surprise that those who opposed the state questions when they passed have been unable or unwilling to adjust to their passage. Drug courts are a good thing, but they have been far from perfect as practiced in Oklahoma. For years treatment professionals have tried to make them less punitive and more treatment-oriented. The Oklahoma drug court statute that was passed 22 years ago gives district attorneys control over which defendants can be admitted to the program and requires the offender reach a plea agreement on terms acceptable to the DA to get into treatment. For thousands of people who need treatment, this has been a one-way ticket to prison. DAs have successfully resisted all efforts to lessen their control.
If you ask people why they voted to lower the penalties for simple drug possession, I think most would say because treatment is a better alternative than prison for people with a drug problem. But the DAs and some in law enforcement can’t turn loose of the law enforcement approach. They want to keep all the “tools in their toolbox” on the theory that the only way to get sick people into treatment is a “hammer.”
At the same time, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services cites lengthy waiting times for people who can’t get into treatment because of lack of resources. Before SQ 780, thousands of people afflicted with a drug problem were arrested and sent to prison. The people of Oklahoma took control of this issue. It’s time now for DAs and sheriffs to quit complaining about it and make it work. Reforming the drug court statutes to give more influence to drug treatment professionals and judges would be an excellent place to start.