Oklahoma Policy Institute formally endorsed State Questions 780 and 781 in January, joining a wide and politically diverse coalition focused on reducing incarceration rates and addressing the root causes of crime. SQ 780 would reclassify simple drug possession and minor property theft from felonies to misdemeanors punishable by a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. SQ 781 would calculate the savings from decreased incarceration and distribute it to counties for substance abuse and mental health treatment. Though SQ 781 will only go into effect if SQ 780 also passes, they were put on the ballot as two separate questions to comply with Oklahoma’s single-subject rule. We believe that passing both questions is an important step towards a fairer and more sustainable justice system.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform gathered over 110,000 signatures for the measures to put them on the ballot. Limited polling of the state questions indicates strong support among the public. With Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons grabbing so many headlines in recent years, along with the success of alternatives to incarceration like Women in Recovery and ReMerge, it seems that a growing segment of Oklahomans understand that sending drug users to prison is not the best response to addiction. Even with the Legislature passing a package of sentencing reform bills this spring, SQ 780 and SQ 781 represent meaningful change — which is why the questions are drawing resistance from those stakeholders most committed to the criminal justice status quo.
SQ 780 limits the power of District Attorneys to threaten low-level defendants with prison time
If the two questions pass, they will take away the possibility of prison time for people whose most serious offense is simple drug possession. That’s a big deal, because in 2013, possession of a controlled substance was the most common controlling offense for those entering Oklahoma prisons, accounting for 16.4 percent of receptions — about 1,380 in total. Almost 10 percent of the prison population (about 2,600 inmates) were incarcerated for drug possession that year. The reclassification of drug possession and minor property crimes will not be retroactive, so people currently serving time in prison for those crimes will not be released, and criminal records will not be automatically updated to reflect the new status. However, the change is likely to make a big difference in the number of people who face felony charges and prison sentences going forward.
“It’s better to ask whether any person whose most serious offense is drug possession is better served by going to prison rather than receiving help with their addiction and how many people can avoid becoming repeat offenders if they get help rather than punishment.”
Opponents of the measures, including Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn and Rep. Scott Biggs (R-Chickasha), argue that few people are going to to prison for their first drug possession conviction. Based on the limited data available, this appears to be true. Between FY 2005 and FY 2010, 10 percent of the 7,056 people admitted to prison for drug possession had no prior felony or misdemeanor convictions, and 17 percent had one prior drug or nonviolent felony conviction. In Tulsa County, about 1 in 4 people convicted of drug possession were sentenced to prison, and the rest were sentenced to community-based alternatives.
Currently DAs and judges have discretion over whether to pursue prison time or an alternative sentence for drug possession charges, giving them a great deal of power over the fate of defendants. In practice, this means that decisions can vary greatly from county to county. As a result, many rural counties send prisoners to the Department of Corrections at twice the rate of Tulsa County and Oklahoma County. Okmulgee County — which elected a new DA in 2010 — saw a 396 percent increase in prison admissions between 2006 and 2014.
This year lawmakers did vote to allow prosecutors more discretion to charge low-level crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. The advantage of SQ 780 over this year’s legislative reforms is that it takes away some discretion from those prosecutors who seek prison time far more than their peers. If prosecutors don’t have the option to send a person to prison for simple drug possession, they’ll have no choice but to use more effective and cheaper options like sending them to treatment.
SQ 781 invests in counties to address the root causes of crime
Opponents argue that prisons aren’t full of first-time, simple drug offenders, so the two questions won’t do much to reduce the prison population. However, it’s better to ask whether any person whose most serious offense is drug possession is better served by going to prison rather than receiving help with their addiction and how many people can avoid becoming repeat offenders if they get help rather than punishment.
Beyond the inmates serving time for simple drug possession, there are thousands more whose crimes escalated as a result of untreated substance abuse and mental illnesses. By sending funds to counties to provide services for mental health and substance abuse, SQ 781 could prevent Oklahomans who struggle with these issues from becoming further entangled in the justice system.
Research suggests that these changes could reap significant benefits. Increased admissions to drug treatment are associated with decreased crime, incarceration, and recidivism rates, and providing treatment services costs far less than incarceration.
Bold reforms will give confidence to the Legislature
Beyond their policy impacts, passing SQ 780 and 781 will show lawmakers that Oklahomans are truly ready for strong responses to reduce Oklahoma’s sky-high prison population. The two questions are a promising start, not a silver bullet; with an incarceration rate over 40 percent higher than the national average, we have a very long road to travel. But after years of stalled efforts and cautious steps from the Legislature, a decisive victory should give lawmakers more courage to pursue big, bold solutions. And that’s exactly what we need.