In a country growing increasingly partisan, there are still opportunities to find common ground. In Oklahoma, this cooperation has been especially noticeable around criminal justice reform. The organizations and individuals who compose the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform coalition – which includes the Oklahoma Policy Institute that I lead – span political ideologies. Yet, many of these groups and individuals recognize that Oklahoma’s punishment-first approach to justice isn’t working.
Oklahoma’s misguided approach to justice has caused significant damage for Oklahoma families, as well as created untenable strains on state and local government budgets as we manage one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates. That’s why Oklahomans have advanced State Question 805, the latest reform measure that would end the practice of extending a prison sentence for nonviolent crimes based on prior nonviolent convictions. Coupled with previous justice reforms – including SQ 780 in 2016 and the legislative justice reform packages from 2018 – this latest ballot initiative provides a significant step forward as we seek a more balanced approach to criminal justice.
SQ 805 serves as a practical measure that ensures punishment fits the offense. If approved, it would eliminate use of sentence enhancements for certain nonviolent crimes that are currently used to extend sentences in four out of every five eligible cases. SQ 805 will ensure that people are not punished twice for the same offense.
Despite opponents’ claims to the contrary, Oklahoma courts could still take prior criminal history in account during sentencing if SQ 805 is approved. State statutes provide judges with sentencing ranges as they determine the most appropriate punishment. By eliminating sentence enhancements, SQ 805 would help prevent extending punishments for nonviolent convictions to absurd lengths, such as a woman facing 20 years in prison for petit larceny and drug possession. While SQ 805 prevents the Legislature from altering the list of offenses to which sentence enhancements can be used, lawmakers would retain authority regarding sentencing ranges for all criminal offenses.
As is expected with change, this measure has some prosecutors and law enforcement officials expressing their opposition as they voice criticisms largely focused on stoking fear rather than evaluating the facts. The data, however, show that in the years following Oklahoma’s recent justice reform efforts, the state’s prison population decreased by 17% and crime rates have remained at near all-time lows.
As Oklahomans are casting their ballots during the Nov. 3 general election, they would be well-served to let facts, not fear, drive their decisions.
Ahniwake Rose is executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.