State Questions 780 and 781 are two intertwined measures that seek to lower Oklahoma’s incarceration rate and divert more offenders to treatment programs.
Proponents say the measures are critical to a state where numerous people’s lives are stunted by felony convictions for nonviolent crimes. But the measures are not without detractors, who say the proposals add too much leniency to the justice system and could have negative effects.
Below are some of the arguments for and against the state questions and information about what each question would put in place.
Q: What is the goal of State Questions 780 and 781?
A: Supporters say they hope that the two proposals will lower the state’s high incarceration rate, save the state money in the long term, and provide rehabilitation and treatment for low-level offenders, helping them become productive members of society.
Q: What would State Question 780 do?
A: Titled the Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act, SQ 780 would amend state laws to make simple possession of a limited amount of illicit drugs a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year of confinement and/or a fine of up to $1,000. That would apply to possession of any drug and to both first and subsequent offenses. The law would do away with stiffer penalties for possessing an illegal drug within 1,000 feet of a park or school. Also, the measure would raise the dollar threshold at which some misdemeanor property crimes become a felony, from $500 to $1,000.
Q: Didn’t the Legislature already make the changes found in State Question 780?
A: Somewhat. The Legislature changed some laws during the last session, such as raising the dollar threshold for some property crimes to become felonies from $500 to $1,000. Legislation also changed simple possession of some Schedule I and II drugs on a first offense from felonies to misdemeanors. SQ 780 goes further by also making subsequent offenses misdemeanors. Prosecutors could still charge people with possession with intent to distribute or trafficking.
Q: What would State Question 781 do?
A: It would create a state revolving fund called the County Community Safety Investment Fund. The Office of Management and Enterprise Services would calculate how much money, if any, was saved by SQ 780 as a result of incarcerating fewer people. The Legislature would then appropriate that amount from the general fund, to be deposited in the investment fund. OMES would then disburse the funds to counties, based on population, to pay for community rehabilitative services, including, but not limited to, mental health and substance abuse services.
Q: What would counties be allowed to do with the money?
A: The proposal calls for using the money for “community rehabilitative programming,” which could include services such as drug and mental health treatment, job training and educational programs. It does not detail what the rehabilitative programs would entail; it requires the director of OMES to write rules to implement the act – rules that could further define the programs.
Q: Why do proponents favor spending the money on services like mental health and substance abuse treatment?
A: They say these will help address the root causes of crime and prove a smarter, more effective way of reducing incarceration. Oklahoma leads the nation in incarceration of women and is among the highest in overall incarceration. By keeping fewer people out of prison, the measure would also alleviate related social problems, such as separation of mothers and fathers from children and the lifelong harm that felony convictions can cause, including in employment.
Q: What do opponents say about the proposals?
A: Opponents argue the measures would loosen drug laws to the point that it would create a danger to public safety and increase crime, in part by taking away the possible deterrent of a prison sentence for possession and stiffer penalties for repeat offenders. They say most of those who would be affected are repeat offenders or offenders who already don’t take advantage of diversion and treatment options. Opponents also say the proposals would tie the hands of district attorneys in using their own judgment on prosecutions and would create issues of jail overcrowding. Some also say the proposals are too ambiguous about how counties can spend the funds.
Q: What happens if one ballot measure passes and the other doesn’t?
A: If SQ 780 passes and SQ 781 fails, the changes to drug possession and property crime laws would take effect, but any savings would not go to counties, rather to the state. If SQ 780 fails and SQ 781 passes, the latter would not take effect.
Q: Who are the supporters?
A: The two questions made it to the ballot through efforts from a group called Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. Supporters are wide-ranging, from the American Civil Liberties Union and Mental Health Association Oklahoma to the Oklahoma City and Tulsa chambers of commerce and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs Impact. The group is headed by former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele.
Q: Who are the opponents?
A: There are no organizations created specifically to oppose the questions, but many prosecutors and law enforcement officials have stated their opposition to one or both of the measures. Those include district attorneys in Oklahoma, Tulsa, Cleveland and Stephens counties and a number of county sheriffs. The Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police also has come out in opposition.
Q: When would the measures take effect?
A: Both state questions would take effect on July 1, 2017.