A bill that would modify State Question 780, a 2016 voter-approved ballot initiative that reclassified several drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and has helped reduce Oklahoma’s prison population, has advanced past committee and is eligible for a Senate vote.
Senate Bill 334, sponsored by Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle, would increase penalties against certain larceny offenders. The bill, which is co-authored in the House by Rep. Rande Worthen, R-Lawton, moved through the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.
Under current state law, if a person commits three or more property crimes over a 90-day period, the total value of the stolen goods can be combined to determine if the defendant should be charged with a felony or misdemeanor. If the total reaches or exceeds $1,000, the punishment is enhanced to a felony. Senate Bill 334 would increase the calculating period from 90 days to one year.
Paxton did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In an interview with KOCO last week, Paxton said he had heard of cases where offenders were intentionally spacing out thefts to avoid a felony charge and drafted the bill based on recommendations from the National Retail Association.
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“It’s not going to affect somebody who was just out of money at the end of the month and made a mistake,” Paxton, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, told the news outlet. “That’s not the target here. The target is those people who are repetitive.”
Criminal justice reform advocates say this bill would target low-level, economically disadvantaged offenders who don’t deserve a felony conviction or prison time. They argue that nearby Texas and Kansas, which have lower calculating periods and higher thresholds for raising misdemeanor larceny to a felony, haven’t seen a substantial increase in thefts.
“We are often talking about people who are literally trying to steal enough food to survive, or safely care for their families at a time when we are seeing higher rates of unemployment and more people at risk of eviction,” said Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Oklahoma. “Our response shouldn’t be further criminalization, but instead seeing how we can provide folks with the support that they need.”
Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation data shows that total larceny offenses have trended downward in recent years. In 2019 there were 70,776 larceny offenses, down from 73,917 in 2016.
Two other bills that would have modified State Question 780 cleared committee failed to advance. Senate Bill 814, sponsored by Sen. Michael Bergstrom, R-Adair, would have increased penalties against drug possession offenders with multiple, non-marijuana related convictions. Senate Bill 670, by Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt, would have made drug possession or distribution within 1,000 feet of a school a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, with some exceptions. Under current law, there is no special enhancement for drug possession and distribution near a school.
Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and former House speaker, said legislative efforts to modify State Question 780 go against the will of the people.
“It’s clear that the people of our state understand that a person battling mental illness and addiction ought to be viewed as a patient, not a prisoner,” Steele said.
Oklahoma’s prison population has dropped considerably since State Question 780 was implemented. There were 21,643 inmates in state custody on March 1, down from 28,003 in March 2016, according to corrections department data. Experts credit the ballot initiative, other successful reform efforts and disruptions to the court system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as primary contributors to the decline. Oklahoma now has the nation’s third-highest imprisonment rate, behind Louisiana and Mississippi, according to a February 2020 StateImpact Oklahoma analysis.
What’s Different This Session?
For the past four years, state lawmakers have attempted to roll back portions of State Question 780 with no success. But justice reform advocates worry that a high profile murder case involving a recent commutation recipient could sway the legislature towards enacting tough on crime policies.
Lawrence Paul Anderson, 42, of Chickasha was charged Feb. 23 with three counts of first-degree murder. On or around Feb. 9, investigators say Anderson forced his way into the home of Andrea Lynn Blankenship, 41, killed her and then cut out her heart. Hours later, authorities say Anderson killed his 67-year-old uncle, Leon Pye, and Pye’s four-year-old granddaughter, Kaeos Yates. He also attacked his aunt, Deslie Pye.
Anderson, who had been serving a 20-year sentence for probation violation in a drug case, was released from prison in January after Gov. Kevin Stitt approved a commutation recommendation from the state Pardon and Parole Board. The governor’s office has requested that the OSBI investigate the circumstances surrounding Anderson’s release.
In a press conference held after Anderson’s arraignment, Grady County District Attorney Jason Hicks said this case proves that state officials have released too many prisoners at the cost of public safety.
“If we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, okay, we can look at our citizens and be honest with them and tell them that you’re safe,” Hicks said.
Commutations have risen considerably in recent years as Stitt has encouraged the Pardon and Parole Board to consider more cases. The board in 2020 recommended commutation for several hundred prisoners, a stark increase from 2017, when just 16 inmates were granted early release.
McAfee said this case stands out as an outlier and that the majority of commutation recipients are able to reenter society and become productive citizens. While no data on recidivism rates for Oklahoma commutation recipients is available, a 2019 Tulsa World review found that few Fallin-era commutation recipients reoffended.
“I think that prosecutors have always used exceptions rather than norms to drive fear and to push their agendas,” she said. “That same prosecutor [Hicks] didn’t express any of those concerns or speak out in the commutation process against that particular commutation.”
Steele said he is confident the incident won’t sway the legislature away from bills that would restrict sentence enhancements and expand medical parole.
“While this situation is horrific, and I don’t want to minimize that in any way, I do believe that it is absolutely the exception and not the rule,” Steele said. “This should not prevent us from continuing to introduce and incorporate and implement evidence-based policy.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss
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