On Nov. 3, Oklahomans will go to the polls and vote on two state questions. S.Q. No. 805 is on the ballot due to the efforts of Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform. If it is passed, it would amend the state constitution to prohibit the use of a person's past nonviolent felonies to be used to impose a greater sentence when convicted of a nonviolent crime.
OSR claims Oklahoma is handing down cruel and unfair sentences for minor crimes, which has resulted in overcrowded prisons. They cite statistics that claim Oklahomans serve 20 percent longer sentences for violent crimes and 79 percent longer for drug-related crimes. "There is no good reason for Oklahoma lawmakers and prosecutors to treat Oklahoma citizens that much more harshly than other states, especially when research shows it does nothing to lower crime rates," wrote Ryan Haynie from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
OCPA's position on this issue resulted in former Gov. Frank Keating's resigning from the conservative think tank board. "S.Q. 805 is the ultimate gift to a career criminal. S.Q. 805 is a 'stay out of jail' card. It will result in more criminal activity and more victims. We must not add to the girth of our constitution with this one-size-fits-all experiment. If 805 passes, it cannot be amended by any Legislature at anytime. It is terrible public policy," Keating wrote urging a "no" vote on 805.
Three observations on S.Q. 805:
First, Oklahoma does need sentence reform, but it should be done by the Legislature, not by amending the state constitution. Amending the founding document to hamstring law enforcement doesn't keep Oklahomans safe. It is reckless and careless. If OSR cares about Oklahoma citizens, it shouldn't be protecting the criminals, but lobbying the Legislature to reform sentencing guidelines.
Second, decriminalizing or reclassifying crime doesn't eliminate it or reduce it. In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved S.Q. 780. Pushed by OSR, it reclassified drug possession, property crimes, and domestic abuse - that's right, domestic abuse! - from felonies to misdemeanors. Two years after S.Q. 780, it had accomplished its goal. Felony charges dropped in the state by 28.4 percent. There was no indication those former felony crimes were not being committed; they were just not felonies anymore, and didn't result in jail time. An estimated 1,500 criminals didn't have to do the time, even though they did the crime.
Third, S.Q. 805 simply goes too far. Even if you believe criminals' past behavior or offences shouldn't be used against them in sentencing, S.Q. 805 is not the way to do it. By amending the state constitution, it would take the Legislature out of the picture. The Legislature is a representative body whose job it is to handle those issues.
District Attorney Jason Hicks, R-Duncan, is president of the Oklahoma DA's Association. He and the group oppose 805: "S.Q. 805 would take away the ability to enhance sentences for repeat felons on a wide variety of crimes, many of which average Oklahomans would consider violent. S.Q. 805 would have a significant impact on public safety in Oklahoma as it would take away one of the most important tools law enforcement has to keep someone from escalating their behavior."
Vote no on S.Q. 805 for the following reasons: (1) Emptying Oklahoma jails will not make us safer. (2) Decriminalizing and reclassifying crimes will not make them go away. (3) A criminal's past should/must be considered in sentencing. (4) Amending the state constitution removes the Legislature from the process.
Steve Fair is the District 4 Oklahoma Republican Party chair.