(First of two articles on the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform campaign)
OKLAHOMA CITY – A pair of ballot initiatives aiming to advance significant reform in state prison and sentencing policy appear to have qualified for the November general election ballot in Oklahoma.
In early June, Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform delivered about 220,000 petition signatures to Oklahoma Secretary of State of Native American Affairs Chris Benge to qualify State Questions 780 and 781 for the November ballot. Last week, Benge’s office announced both measures appear to have sufficient names of registered state voters. The state Supreme Court will soon determine if the measures are officially approved for ballot status.
The measures are designed to reduce the prison population, redirect savings toward addressing the root causes of crime, and help those in need of rehabilitation and treatment services
Coalition leaders said the signatures, well above the 65,000 required to qualify an initiative for the ballot, demonstrated the tremendous support that exists across Oklahoma for reforming the state’s criminal justice system and investing in smarter approaches toward public safety.
“After months of petitioning, relying on the hard work of volunteers across the state, we are proud to finally present to the Secretary of State more than 200,000 signatures from people all across Oklahoma affirming their belief that it’s time to take a smarter approach to public safety,” said Kris Steele, Chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, in a press release when advocates turned the names in. “We spend nearly $500 million annually on a system that continues growing, and it’s time to finally invest in people, helping them return to productive lives in the community.”
Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country and the highest incarceration rate for women, which costs taxpayers nearly $500 million annually and drains significant resources away from investments that can do more to provide necessary rehabilitation and training programs, and ultimately enhance public safety.
As the state’s prison population continues growing – increasing by 12 percent between 2009 and 2014 – so does its price tag, which has increased by 172 percent in the past two decades.
Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform launched the ballot effort earlier this year and has brought together some of Oklahoma’s most respected leaders representing Oklahomans everywhere, including faith leaders, business leaders, policy experts, community leaders and advocates, and treatment and rehabilitation providers, among others.
“It’s time to finally take a smarter approach to public safety and start investing in people, not prisons,” said Rev. Dr. George E. Young, Sr., a minister and member of the House of Representatives. An Oklahoma City Democrat, Rep. Young said, “Instead of imprisoning people for low-level offenses, which costs taxpayers money and does not address underlying factors that contribute to crime, we can invest that money in programs that rehabilitate people and prevent these crimes in the first place. State Questions 780 and 781 will help us to achieve that and better invest in safer, stronger communities.”
“With the more than 200,000 petition signatures we’ve collected, it’s clear: Oklahomans want to invest in a justice system that improves the lives of Oklahomans, strengthens our communities, and reduces our prison population,” said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of ACLU of Oklahoma.
“State Questions 780 and 781 will help us begin to turn the tide, to ensure that we have a criminal justice system that works for the people of Oklahoma instead of tearing families and communities apart.”
Following today’s official drop off of the petition signatures, the Secretary of State’s office will have up to two weeks to count and verify the signatures before officially qualifying State Questions 780 and 781 to be included on the November ballot.
The Ballot Measures
Through two ballot measures – Questions 780 and 781 – the coalition is working to pursue sentencing reforms for certain low-level offenses, which trigger cost savings to be invested in evidence-based programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions and provide access to education and job training, which are more effective approaches to reducing crime and keeping communities safe.
S.Q. 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. S.Q. 781 would invest those cost savings into addressing the root causes of crime through rehabilitation programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions that often contribute to criminal behavior and go untreated in prison, and education and job training programs to help people find employment, and avoid going back to prison.
Removing the felony conviction for individuals battling addiction and mental illness and redirecting costs savings back to counties for treatment services represent logical next steps toward building on and strengthening the reforms signed into law.
More information about the initiatives, and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, can be found on its website at www.OKJusticeReform.org. Updates on the coalition’s efforts can also be seen on Twitter at @OKJusticeReform and on Facebook.
NEXT: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan reports on the broad liberal and conservative leadership united to seek criminal justice reform in Oklahoma.