An advocacy group, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, is seeking more than 65,000 signatures by early June to put two measures before voters on November’s ballot.
Should the group garner enough signatures, the ballot would include State Questions 780 and 781, both seeking to address prison overcrowding and community mental health and to reduce sentences for future offenders convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes.
Former state House Speaker Kris Steele, the group’s chairman and the executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), is a longtime advocate for reforming the state’s court and prison systems. He spoke with Oklahoma Watch about the ballot initiatives. The questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What would these ballot initiatives do?
A: State Question 780 is really the policy side of things. The initiative basically seeks to reclassify some low-level offenses to misdemeanors punishable by treatment in the community. Currently, multiple convictions will result in a felony conviction punishable by incarceration.
If the first one passes, the second question (State Question 781) would create an account and direct that the savings created by these people not being sent to prison would be captured by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services and distributed to counties throughout Oklahoma to fund treatment services, mental health services and supervision for these individuals. It gives counties a way to actually fund the treatment and mental health care that would be necessary to address these issues.
Q: Would these be minor or major changes?
A: These are significant changes for Oklahoma. These sentencing reforms have already been implemented in other states that are achieving and even surpassing the projected outcomes. We’re not plowing new ground. We’re basing policy objectives on what we know is effective and what is working in other states … We’re trying to address the root causes of criminal behavior.
Q: Could the measures instead create an incentive to commit more crimes, by reducing the penalties?
A: We’ve not seen evidence of that in other states where adequate treatment options are available. There’s never an excuse for criminal behavior, but it’s not uncommon for a person to steal to feed a habit, or because of a mental illness. If you can address the root causes behind criminal activity, it stands to reason the behavior would change. And we’ve certainly seen that in other states that have enacted similar reforms.
You can take a person off the streets, but 95 percent of the time that person will be coming back into the community at some time. When that time happens, we want to help them not be a risk to public safety. We believe the way you do that is by adequately addressing the issues of addiction and mental illness.
Q: You mentioned low-level offenses. What types of offenses are you referring to?
A: Certain misdemeanors. It’s drug possession and simple property crimes. Right now if someone steals something that is worth $500 or more, it’s a felony conviction and it’s considered grand larceny.
The ballot initiative increases the threshold for grand larceny from $500 to $1,000. This is not stealing at gunpoint or anything like that. And there would still be significant consequences for low-level stealing. But often when a person is stealing, they’re doing that to feed a habit. So what we’re trying to get at is addressing the root cause of the behavior.
Q: What is the required number of signatures and how long do you have to collect them?
A: We have to collect 65,987 signatures for each question. Our goal is to collect at least 86,000 signatures per question just to be safe. State law says we have 90 days, until June 7.
Q: Who is behind Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform?
A: The group is comprised of leaders from across Oklahoma – faith leaders, business leaders, elected officials, health professionals and others. The coalition is diverse, and that is exciting. We have people coming together because they see the need.
For some it’s a matter of fiscal responsibility, and for others it may be the disproportionate effects that our current policies have on minority groups.
Q: How would you rate your chances of getting enough signatures and seeing voters approve the questions?
I’m optimistic. We know we have a lot of work ahead of us. But we’ve done our homework. And if we’re able to get this on the ballot in November, we feel very optimistic about its chances of passing.
Q: If the initiatives pass, what will be the direct results?
A: Three basic things – reduce the prison population, save money, and allow counties to make investments into evidence-based programming that improves public safety.
The budget for the Department of Corrections has grown by about 172 percent over the last two decades. And they’re still underfunded. There’s not enough money in the state of Oklahoma to pay for incarceration of all the people the Legislature wants to incarcerate. This is a step to say we need to differentiate between individuals who do pose a danger to society and need to be incarcerated and individuals who commit low-level offense who would be better served through treatment, intervention, and mental health care in the community.
Q: How would these measures align with the criminal justice reforms proposed by Gov. Mary Fallin and the Legislature?
A: This initiative petition is intended to complement and support the policy initiatives. (Among other things, those measures would give prosecutors more discretion in filing misdemeanor charges for certain crimes, lower sentencing ranges for felony drug offenses, increase the minimum dollar amount that makes a property crime a felony and expand eligibility for drug court and community sentencing.)
Q: How many people would be affected by the ballot initiatives and how much would the cost savings be?
A: We’re still getting the cost estimates, but we think the policy changes we’re seeking could potentially affect as many as 30 percent of prison admissions in any given year. It costs around $17,000 per year to incarcerate a person in Oklahoma, so it would mean significant savings.
Q: Would the change apply retroactively to people who are now in prison?
A: It does not. It is not retroactive. It would only apply to individuals who may be charged with these crimes after the law would go into effect. We did look at that, but the attorneys advised that you would get into some constitutional questions.