Oklahoma’s legal system is adversarial by nature, and it’s become increasingly rare for prosecutors and defense attorneys to see eye to eye. We should know: one of us is an elected district attorney who prosecutes crimes, and the other is a chief public defender who represents defendants.
Despite our differences, we are both voting yes on State Question 805.
This important criminal justice reform will help end decades-long sentences for nonviolent crimes, help reduce prison overcrowding, and save taxpayers millions of dollars that can be invested in substance abuse and mental health treatment, or victims’ services.
You might think that our interests would be at odds, but we share an obligation to seek justice and the fair application of our laws. As legal professionals, we believe it is our duty to tell the truth about potential changes to those laws.
Oklahomans put State Question 805 on the ballot to eliminate sentence enhancements that result in punishments dramatically above the maximum sentence for nonviolent crimes.
Unfortunately, some opponents have resorted to spreading misinformation and outright lies about the impact of State Question 805. We want to set the record straight so that voters can feel confident casting their yes vote.
Here’s the truth: State Question 805 does not apply to any violent crimes or anyone with a violent felony conviction. It does not affect the ability of prosecutors, judges, or juries to consider a person’s criminal history when sentencing defendants for any crime.
In fact, State Question 805 doesn’t change the underlying sentence for either nonviolent or violent crimes. Punishments can still be increased in response to repeat criminal behavior. Oklahoma’s criminal code includes a minimum and maximum sentence for every offense, and this structure was designed to provide judges and juries with a range of punishments that are proportional to the current offense but also allow consideration of prior criminal history.
For example, many of the crimes affected by State Question 805 have sentencing ranges between 0-10 years. What this means is that a person can be sentenced to probation for their first or second conviction, a short prison term if they have multiple convictions, and up to 10 years in a state prison if they show repeat criminal behavior.
These sentence ranges are untouched by State Question 805, and if it becomes law, prosecutors will still have the discretion to seek the maximum sentence for that offense. A prosecutor may also seek consecutive sentences if more than one offense is charged. If the person has ever been convicted of a violent crime, sentence enhancements will still apply and the judge or jury will still have the option of handing down a prison sentence above the statutory maximum for that crime.
What will change is the ability of prosecutors to hang decades-long sentences over the head of a defendant for a nonviolent crime. These extreme sentences don’t make us safer, deny people a real second chance, and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
State Question 805 is a commonsense solution to a common problem in Oklahoma. We have too many people in prison for nonviolent crimes, and many of them have received sentences that are two, three, four times as long as the maximum sentence for that offense. That’s why Oklahomans serve 70 percent longer in prison for property crimes and 79 percent longer for drug crimes than the national average. This is one area we shouldn’t strive to be in the “top ten.”
It’s long past time to reject these extreme sentences, and State Question 805 is an important opportunity to restore common sense to Oklahoma’s sentencing laws.
Allan Grubb serves as District Attorney for Pottawatomie and Lincoln Counties. Corbin Brewster serves as Public Defender of Tulsa County.