A controversial state question that would reform the state’s criminal justice system has qualified for November’s general election ballot.
As supporters were able to gather enough signatures before the deadline, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled that State Question 805 qualifies for the Nov. 3 ballot.
Supporters say: measure ends the use of repeat sentencing penalties for nonviolent offenses. The enhanced penalties are currently used to increase prison sentences for offenders who have prior convictions and that eliminating the enhancements for nonviolent offenders will save taxpayers up to $186 million over the next decade.
Locally, though, opinions differ.
"I encourage all voters to consider the full context of this State Ballot Question and consider the consequence of their vote. I personally think that a State Constitutional requirement for the State Courts to utilized a mandated and limited sentencing guideline for a repeat, felony offender cripples our court's ability to protect and safe guard our citizens, their rights, and their property," said Claremore Police Chief Stan Brown. "As a police administrator this is concerning to me. Proponents of this bill talk about cost saving measures as one of the goals. Unfortunately, the same were proponents of SQ 780 and 781 and we still don't have a clear picture of the financial metrics of those actions."
Claremore's own Sen. Marty Quinn said he's for sentencing reform—but not in this way.
"SQ 805 is part of the efforts for criminal justice reform. In this case they're trying to do it by going around the legislative process and doing it with a state question and I think that's dangerous," Quinn said. "I support proper sentencing reform, but even in non-violent crimes you see patterns develop in an individual's behavior. Offenses escalate more and more…People don't typically wake up one day and commit a worse crime, they work up to it. I think that should be considered in the sentencing phase so that a judge who is looking at this person's pattern for the last five or 10 years can factor that in."
Quinn said it would represent a savings: "Supporters know a lot of money is spent on incarceration. But it can't be just about savings, it's got to be about justice."
He added, "Saving money is great. But, we need to be focused on changing education, lifestyle, and training to prevent these repeat offenders."
Rep. Tom Gann said, "It is said, “Whatever the law allows it encourages”. If SQ805 passes disallowing judges to consider past criminal history in sentencing it will encourage more crime. This utopian agenda that punishment is outdated stands against law and order. In the era of SQ 780 increasing the dollar threshold of property crimes, and now “defunding the police,” I cannot think of a greater mistake we can make than tying the hands of local judges with this state question. I will be voting no and urge others to do the same."
Rep. Mark Lepak took issue with both SQ 805 and the petition process that allows it to be placed on the ballot.
"SQ805 is a perfect example of why I don't like the current initiative petition process, especially on constitutional matters, where citizens are being asked to consider a very complex topic, without the benefit of considered study, but with plenty of well-financed or grassroots proponents, and little visible or organized opposition," said Lepak. "The basic question is whether or not past non-violent felony convictions should be considered when someone is charged with a violent felony, known as “enhancement". For example, if a person has past felony convictions for stealing from unoccupied residences, considered non-violent, but then does the same thing where someone is actually home, considered violent felony, should that "non-violent" pattern be considered? It is only a matter of time before that non-violent pattern becomes something much more serious, possibly escalating into assault or homicide, or does that matter?"
He added, "Citizens are being asked to set guidelines in the constitution, which constrain district attorneys, judges, and juries from evaluating very specific and complex scenarios. Generally, I'm supportive of giving a lot of discretion to judges and juries, to consider all relevant facts when making their decisions."
The "Yes on 805" campaign president Sarah Edwards said, "Our state is wasting money doling out sentences for nonviolent offenses that are out of proportion to the crimes. Data overwhelmingly shows that resources such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, education and job training are better investments to correct the underlying issue which led to the offense and end the cycle of repeat offenses.”
Edwards said the campaign received 248,521 signatures on their petition, earning it a place on the ballot.
But the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault are arguing against the measure.
In a press statement, ODOC said, "While ODOC appreciates the goal of reducing sentence lengths absent a commensurate public safety benefit, the calculation of the financial impact to ODOC’s operating budget cannot account for the realities of budget forecasting, sentencing, and prison operations….The recent budget shortfall, unexpected even one year ago, reduced ODOC’s FY 2021 budget by more than $24,000,000. This nullifies the projected savings from SQ 805 for the next 4.5 years. The pandemic coupled with a drastic drop in oil and gas revenues precipitates a bleak fiscal forecast for years. Any cost savings realized by potential sentence reductions will help plug the most serious holes in the agency’s operations."
The Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence issued a statement that "SQ 805 amends the Oklahoma Constitution to eliminate sentence enhancements for all felonies that were not already designated as a violent felony by Jan. 1, 2020. It limits penalties for repeat offenders to the same penalty range as a first time offender, now matter how many crimes someone has previously committed."
They said that in Oklahoma "non-violent" may not mean what most you think it does. Examples of 'non-violent' include domestic violence by strangulation, domestic violence with a dangerous weapon, domestic violence against a pregnant woman, domestic violence in the presence of a child, hate crimes, stalking, incest, animal cruelty, drug trafficking and soliciting sex from a minor."
"There is a big project underway right now to redefine what sentences are considered violent and non-violent in statute. People are surprised to find out that spousal abuse involving strangulation, aggravated assault and battery, animal cruelty, and the like are currently considered "non-violent". I'm not sure what a constitutional change would do to that effort," Lepak said.
The Domestic violence coalition further pointed out that SQ 805 makes these changes retroactive, meaning anyone whose sentence was enhanced with a prior conviction could seek modification to their sentence; habitual offenders would be eligible to reduce their sentences and receive the same penalty range as a first time offender.
"Applying this law retroactively leaves victims unprotected, unsafe, and uncertain," they said. "Under SQ805 a person convicted of domestic violence would be limited to a penalty of up to four years, regardless of their criminal history, no matter how many prior convictions they have, or how many victims they have abused."