This amendment to the Oklahoma constitution would address the use of sentence enhancements, a broken practice that continues to punish people for their past interactions with the criminal legal system. This means that while people convicted of felonies considered statutorily nonviolent could be sentenced with the crime, prosecutors cannot tack on even more years for convictions for which they have already served their time. In addition, this measure would allow people currently in prison for eligible convictions who were sentenced with a sentence enhancement to petition a court to have their sentences updated to reflect the range of punishment for their current conviction. A diverse and bipartisan coalition that includes business and faith leaders, advocates and elected leaders, and people directly impacted by incarceration filed this initiative petition to give voters the opportunity to vote “yes” on a common-sense reform that will dramatically curb the use of extreme and ineffective sentence enhancements.
Oklahoma has an incarceration crisis, driven in large part by its use of extreme and excessive sentences. People accused of crimes in Oklahoma can have years, decades, up to life stacked on top of already long sentences if they have ever been convicted of a crime in the past. Even though people have already been held accountable for those past convictions, these “sentence enhancements” can be applied at the complete discretion of prosecutors to increase the sentence for nearly any charge. This ballot initiative will help address Oklahoma’s mass incarceration crisis, reunite families, allow us to save money and redirect to other priorities. Specific examples include commutations approved by the Pardon and Parole Board for 16 life sentences and five life without parole sentences.
Champions for criminal justice reform have worked to move these changes in legislation over the last several sessions, but each session we wind up with compromised, watered down language that legislators are still not bold enough to enact. The time for meaningful change for all of the Oklahoma families and communities impacted by the bad practice of sentence enhancements is now. We trust voters to get this right, and make the change to implement this practice to build a justice system that is evidence-based and grounded in best practices.
Oklahomans have overwhelmingly supported criminal justice reforms with the successful passage of State Questions 780 and 781 in 2016. Legislators have tried to pass legislation that would rein-in sentence enhancements and reduce extreme sentences, but these efforts have failed despite widespread support from state leaders and Oklahoma voters. Oklahoma voters will have the opportunity to vote “yes” on a common-sense reform that will dramatically curb the use of cruel and ineffective sentence enhancements. Polling conducted by Public Opinion Strategies in September 2019 shows deep support for this constitutional amendment. Two-thirds (66 percent) of Oklahoma voters support the ballot proposal. This includes nearly identical levels of support among Republicans (68 percent) and Democrats (67 percent).
Yes, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is consistently one of the worst in the nation and it will take reforms in many areas to truly move the needle on this issue. Luckily, there is a large, bipartisan effort from multiple groups to work on this issue, including Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, the Oklahoma Institute of Child Advocacy, ACLU of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Policy Institute, Americans for Prosperity and Right on Crime, to name a few. Not to mention Governor Stitt’s efforts with his RESTORE task force and many legislators who are criminal justice reform champions. We need all hands on deck to reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and this ballot initiative is just another piece in the overall mission.
We are currently looking for funding partners for this initiative and hope to have both local and national funders who are committed to reforming our criminal justice system join us in this effort.
177,958 voter signatures are required to qualify for the 2020 ballot. We need everyone’s help and support to make this issue a priority and get it on the 2020 ballot. Help us get the word out by posting on your social channels using #OKJusticeReform, and sign the petition here.
No. If this ballot becomes law, prosecutors, judges, and juries will still have discretion for sentencing within the legal range, they simply will not be able to use previous convictions to greatly extend those sentences or force people into plea deals that set them up for failure.
No. The overwhelming evidence is that extraordinarily long prison sentences, like the ones that will be addressed by this ballot initiative, do not improve public safety.
We will focus on gathering 177,958 voter signatures by March 26th, 2020 to qualify for the November 2020 ballot and building a local coalition of supporters.
We are meeting Oklahomans where they are right now. We are starting the conversation with nonviolent offenses but we know more needs to be done. Sentence enhancements are a harmful practice that prosecutors use to tack on years in prison and to further punish a person for a past conviction, for which they have already served their time, regardless of the type of charge. Prosecutors also often use sentence enhancements as leverage to force people into plea deals that are focused more on punishment than public safety. This ballot initiative would move Oklahoma towards national best practices on sentencing and forever change the lives of thousands of Oklahomans. Longer prison sentences are not deterrents and can do long-term harm to Oklahoma communities at a large cost to Oklahoma taxpayers.
This ballot initiative uses Oklahoma’s statutory definition of violence—the one that the legislature created for a whole host of things like parole and probation eligibility. You can find this definition in Section 571 of Title 57 of the Oklahoma Statutes.
The ballot initiative process is not the right way to go about reforming our system. Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis is harming families and our economy, without making us safer. It is an all-hands-on-deck problem that requires an all-hands-on-deck solution. There is a need for executive action, legislative reform, public education and culture change, as well as voter initiated reform. If you’d like to help us make a change, start by signing our petition here or signing up for a volunteer shift here.
A constitutional change is the best way to enact this reform because it will not impede efforts to modernize Oklahoma’s criminal code for years to come. There are sentence enhancements sprinkled throughout Oklahoma’s criminal code. The best way to ensure that all were addressed through one ballot was to do it constitutionally. If this ballot passes, it will not hamper important and ongoing efforts to improve Oklahoma’s criminal code. Policymakers will still be able to modify sentences, increase eligibility for prison alternatives, create a felony sentencing system, and pursue many many more improvements.
Sentence enhancements do nothing to reduce repeat offenders or keep our communities safer. They are bad policy and should be removed permanently from the Oklahoma criminal code.
This policy was highly vetted and is based on best practices. Having been raised in legislation for at least three years at the capitol, legislators have tried to pass legislation that would rein-in sentence enhancements and reduce extreme sentences. These efforts have failed despite widespread support from state leaders and Oklahoma voters. The reality is Oklahoma has an incarceration crisis, driven in large part by its use of extreme and excessive sentences. If this ballot becomes law, prosecutors will still be able to advocate for the sentence that they think is right within the legal range, and judges will still be able to sentence people to longer or shorter sentences within that legal range. You simply will not be able to use previous convictions in order to greatly extend the legal range.