Stillwater Frontier Rotary hosted a forum on State Question 805 Thursday with Kris Steele, Executive Director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, and Laura Austin Thomas, District Attorney for Payne and Logan counties.
On Nov. 3, Oklahoma voters will be asked to decide whether the state constitution should be amended to add language preventing former non-violent felony convictions from being used to increase sentences for people accused of subsequent non-violent crimes.
People who have already been convicted and sentenced who meet eligibility could have their sentences modified.
The initiative petition that put the question on the ballot was submitted to the Oklahoma Secretary of State’s office in June with 260,000 signatures. Valid signatures from 177,958 registered voters were needed for it to qualify to be placed on the ballot.
In 2016, Oklahoma incarcerated more people than any state except Louisiana, according to a report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It led the nation in female incarceration for the 25th year in a row.
Thomas has been an outspoken critic of SQ 805.
Enacting it as a state question is a way of going around the legislature and putting the measure in the state constitution would make it expensive and difficult to make changes, she said.
Thomas listed serious offenses that are classified as non-violent according to the Oklahoma State Legislature. Those classifications were not developed for this purpose, she said.
She characterized support for the question as coming from out of state and from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Thomas used the example of a person who commits multiple robberies, saying a serial offender would have to be charged and sentenced the same way as a first-time offender.
“We don’t want a five-time burglar serving seven years,” she said.
Domestic violence advocates oppose SQ 805, she said. Most domestic violence offenses are classified as non-violent in Oklahoma.
The only ones who will benefit from passage of SQ 805 are career criminals, Thomas said.
Steele, a Republican and former Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, has dedicated himself to criminal justice reform since terming out of the legislature.
He is a proponent of the measure, which he says will save the state an estimated $200 million that could be used to fund other needs.
Steele maintains that Oklahomans are not inherently more criminal than people in every other state and says the state cannot afford to continue its current rate of mass incarceration.
Recently the state has managed to reduce its prison population by 10%, Steele said. But it’s not enough considering Oklahoma prisons had reached 112% capacity.
People who are accused of crimes can still be sentenced within the full range allowed for the offense, Steele said. If their offense carries a penalty of 2-7 years, a first-time offender would likely receive the minimum sentence while a repeat offender could receive the maximum. If the sentencing range isn’t appropriate, it can be changed.
He said voters saw no other way forward and putting the question on the ballot was a way to uphold the will of the people.
“State Question 805 is not a free pass,” Steele said.