Oklahomans will decide whether prosecutors can continue to use sentence enhancements against some repeat offenders in November, when State Question 805 hits the ballot.
SQ 805, if passed, would prevent district attorneys from seeking sentence enhancements against people who have never been convicted of a violent felony. Supporters say it could help reduce the state's overcrowded prison population and save around $180 million over the next 10 years, but opponents are worried about certain offenses that were not - or are still not - considered violent crimes in Oklahoma.
The state is facing what many consider to be an incarceration crisis. Oklahoma leads the world in women incarcerated per capita. Also, Oklahoma sends people to prison for longer periods of time than other states through the use of sentence enhancements, according to Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and The Education and Employment Ministry, and former Speaker of the House.
Steele said that in many instances, the range of punishment for certain crimes, set by the Legislature, is thrown out if the person has a record of criminal history.
"That range of punishment is thrown away and the courts just give whatever range of punishment they would deem appropriate for the individual," said Steele. "So even if the range of punishment is two to seven years, if the person has a prior nonviolent conviction in their past, the court can add years, decades, and in many cases, 20 or 30 years beyond the maximum range of punishment for that offense."
People convicted of nonviolent offenses would still go to prison if SQ 805 passed; they just would not receive additional years beyond the maximum punishment assigned by the Legislature. It was also pointed out by Steele that the savings could mean more money for education, infrastructure, economic development and services for people in at-risk situations.
Supporters of the petition have pointed out that while Oklahoma has the highest rate of incarnation, it also has one of the highest rates of crime - more than Texas, Kansas, Arkansas and New Mexico. So the idea is that adding years on to offenders' sentences does little to improve public safety.
But local residents have mixed opinions, and think this is a tough decision.
"I think that when incarceration rates and the lengths of sentences overwhelm the corrections system to no public betterment, we need to rethink our approach," said Dell Barnes, Cherokee County Democratic Party vice chair. "That is exactly what this state question does, and everyday Oklahomans are correct to seek a solution outside of the Legislature. As for the hand-wringing about the loss of enhancements, the statutory definitions and maximums should be crafted to meet the needs of the constituency; enhancements may be used unfairly and should have never been necessary."
Despite what benefits could come from SQ 805, it appears most locals are not in favor of it, for a variety of reasons.
In May, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill that reclassified several domestic abuse charges - including domestic assault with a dangerous weapon, domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and domestic assault and battery with a deadly weapon - as violent crimes. However, SQ 805 would only apply to all crimes that were considered nonviolent on Jan. 1, 2020. So those who committed domestic abuse offenses before the new classification would not be eligible for enhancements, and that remains a large concern among opponents.
Domestic abuse by strangulation, sexual battery, and DUI with great bodily injury are also not included in Oklahoma's list of violent felonies. Although, more legislation could be pursed to reclassify such crimes, state lawmakers would not be able to amend SQ 805 itself.
Justin Kennedy, Cherokee County Young Republicans chair, doesn't want to see laws passed that would take extensive legislative maneuvering to rectify issues they might contain.
"If there's a whole lot of stuff that comes in through this ballot initiative, going back and trying to relegislate it after the fact is the part I really don't care for," said Kennedy. "I don't like passing stuff, even through the legislative bodies, that has to go back and be relegislated or go through all the committees afterward. I feel like that's something we should try to address first, but that's generally the case. We just get it passed and then legislate it after the fact."
Oklahoma does have a statute that gives prosecutors the ability to charge offenders with "domestic abuse with prior pattern of physical abuse," which can carry a punishment of up to 10 years in prison. The caveat is that it requires witness testimony, which can sometimes be difficult to come by, or other evidence besides the testimony given by the victim.
The state question does not apply to those who had prior violent felony convictions and are later charged with a nonviolent crime, so their sentences could still be enhanced.
Readers were asked in a Facebook Saturday Forum what they think about the ballot initiative. The majority of participants appeared against the measure. However, some respondents said criminal justice reform is needed, but they aren't sure SQ 805 is the best way to address it.
Stephanie Gilbert will be voting no.
"Voting no, until this is reevaluated to be actually nonviolent crimes," she said. "Good grief, whoever came up with question 805 needs to use common sense. As it's currently written, there are a lot of violent crimes listed that people aren't willing to sweep under the proverbial rug."
Cheryl Leeds would like to see lawmakers reclassify more crimes as violent offenses, such as domestic abuse.
"I believe the bill should pass, then we need to pressure our legislators to change the charges like domestic violence to harsher offenses that won't be covered by this change," said Leeds. "Many of the offenses that cause many to oppose 805 are too lenient and need reclassification."
Clark Gibson suggested an alternative route to lowering the incarceration rate.
"If they really want to lower the prison population and work on injustice in the Oklahoma legal system, they will abolish bail and private prisons," he said.
What you said
Readers were asked how they feel SQ 805. The majority of the respondents, 59.1 percent, said they strongly oppose it; 18.2 percent said they strongly support it; 12.5 percent said they somewhat oppose it; 8 percent said they somewhat support it; and 2.3 percent were uncertain.