Oklahomans approve criminal justice reforms: State Questions 780 and 781
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly approved State Questions 780 and 781, marking a major turning point for reforming Oklahoma’s criminal justice system and investing in strengthening public safety and Oklahoma’s communities. Advocates say the two state questions will set Oklahoma on a path toward pursuing a smarter approach to public safety by reducing the prison population, redirecting savings toward addressing the root causes of crime, and providing rehabilitation and treatment services to return people to productive lives in their communities.
Final but unofficial results from the Oklahoma state Election Board found S.Q. 780 with 829,928 votes, 58.3 percent of votes past, to 596,431 (44.7 percent) against. The S.Q. 781 result was 794,341 in favor (56.21 percent), and 618,901 against (43.79 percent).
The state questions, shepherded to passage by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, will help to reduce the cost of incarceration to taxpayers, which surpasses $500 million annually, and will begin reducing Oklahoma’s high prison population, which represents the second highest incarceration rate in the country, and the highest incarceration rate among women.
“Today, Oklahoma’s voters have spoken loud and clear: it’s time to take a smarter approach to public safety and finally reform Oklahoma’s criminal justice system,” said Kris Steele, chair of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “Because of the tremendous support we’ve received from Oklahomans everywhere, who fueled this effort, Oklahoma will take a major step toward reducing our prison population and investing in rehabilitation and treatment services to address the root causes of crime and better invest in public safety. This new approach is good for taxpayers, is good for small businesses, is good for public safety, and is good for families. We’re proud that we are able to stand alongside Oklahomans today in taking this important and major step forward.”
The successful “Yes on 780 and 781” campaign, which launched in February, generated support from Oklahomans across the state, including some of the state’s most prominent and respected law enforcement officials, faith leaders, business leaders, healthcare and medical professionals, and elected officials.
From March to June, the campaign collected more than 220,000 signatures from Oklahomans across the state to qualify State Questions 780 and 781 for the November ballot – far exceeding the 65,000 signatures required. In the months following, the campaign crisscrossed the state hosting a series of town halls, community conversations, and other events bringing the conversation directly to the people of Oklahoma.
Polling throughout the campaign revealed the conversation was having an impact, and Oklahomans were responding.
A joint SoonerPoll/Oklahoman survey conducted in August reinforced the findings of a strategy poll from earlier in the year indicating that 77 percent of Oklahomans agree that someone who commits a low-level offense should not be saddled with a felony conviction that will follow them through life and prevent them from getting an education or a job, and 79 percent agree that instead of keeping these people behind bars, we should invest in programs that prevent crime and provide rehabilitation – the policies encompassed in State Questions 780 and 781.
“The criminal justice system’s reliance on felony convictions has, for too long, turned too many of our fellow Oklahomans into second-class citizens who have a hard time finding employment and are unable to fully participate in civic life, said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma and former Member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. “Not only do these particular Oklahomans bear a significant burden, their families and communities also feel the impact. This victory represents a historic step forward to put our collective energies towards the common goal of making our communities safer.”
Some of Oklahoma’s most prominent and respected leaders from across the state joined an overwhelming majority of Oklahomans in supporting State Questions 780 and 781, including law enforcement officials, faith leaders, elected officials, business leaders, and medical and health professionals, among others.
Some of those supporters included:
Jonathan Small, President of Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs:
“Aside from the moral argument for reforming our state’s criminal justice system, this is also important to our state’s economic future. By passing State Questions 780 and 781, we will no longer be wasting money on a system that does not achieve our intended results, and will begin, through a conservative approach, to give resources and control back to our local communities.”
Clay Bennett, Owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chairman of Dorchester Capital Corporation:
“For too long, Oklahoma’s taxpayers have spent millions of dollars incarcerating our citizens, without addressing the conditions that lead people to commit crimes in the first place. By passing these ballot initiatives, Oklahomans have recognized that our state’s resources would be better invested in rehabilitating low-level offenders through treatment and job training so they are able to obtain jobs and contribute to our economy. I am proud to stand with Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform not only in these ballot initiative victories, but also in the continuous push for reforms that will allow us to spend taxpayer money more efficiently and to improve our citizens’ quality of life.”
Dr. Hance Dilbeck, Senior Pastor of Quail Springs Baptist Church and President of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma:
“The reforms that passed through these ballot initiatives to criminal justice will have a profound positive impact on our families and our communities. We will be offering people who are battling addiction, people created in the image of God, a second chance at life so they can become productive neighbors.”
David Blatt, Director, Oklahoma Policy Institute:
“Oklahoma has faced extreme budget stress in recent years, and the growth of corrections spending has been a major contributor. In passing State Questions 780 and 781, we are taking the best first steps to get our state finances in order, by being smarter about who we lock up.”
Estela Hernandez, Vice President of Engagement, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs:
“We should never lose sight of our hope to restore people, families and communities. That is what Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform is about and we are pleased to be a part of this victory and this continuing effort. By reclassifying many non-violent crimes as misdemeanors, we make it more likely that people can be redirected to get their lives back on track.”
William C. Kellough, Former Tulsa County District Court Judge:
“Throughout my career, I have seen firsthand how our justice system work, and how it doesn’t work. In the forefront of my mind at all times was public safety. State Questions 780 and 781 represent a smart approach to criminal justice with a focus on reducing prison population and enhancing rehabilitation and treatment at the local level while preserving public safety.”
Rev. Dr. George E Young, Sr., State Representative:
“Oklahoma has long needed a better approach to our justice system that will invest taxpayer resources in more effective programs to address the root causes of crime. Passing State Questions 780 and 781 is an important victory for strengthening families and communities throughout our state.”
Robert Henry, President, Oklahoma City University, Former Oklahoma Attorney General and Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10thCircuit:
“We have spent too much money for too long on an inefficient system of imprisoning people for low-level offenses. SQ 780 and 781 will instead allow us to invest in programs designed to address the root causes of crime and help Oklahomans lead productive lives. That is why I have supported these initiatives and am very pleased that they passed with strong support throughout the state.”
Ed Smith, Police Chief:
“Public safety, which includes strong families and strong communities, should be at the forefront of our justice system. For too long, we have been locking up low-level offenders for lengthy sentences without ever addressing why they committed the crime in the first place. With the passage of SQ 780 and 781, we will begin to better our justice system by focusing on the root causes of crime while helping Oklahomans lead productive lives.”
Roy Williams, President & CEO, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber:
“Passing S.Q. 780 and 781 is a smart, economic victory for the state of Oklahoma. We can now reinvest in Oklahomans who struggle to contribute in society due to a felony conviction, mental health issues, or addiction. These people are an untapped workforce that will help Oklahoma’s economy grow, while making us more productive and competitive.”
Dana Weber, President & CEO, Webco Industries:
“State Questions 780 and 781 are built around a common-sense approach: Instead of spending more money on prisons, we can reduce incarceration costs and redirect the savings to proven strategies for breaking the cycle of crime. By shifting resources to rehabilitation services like treatment, education and job training, we can return people to productive lives in the community, reunite them with their families, and empower them to live prosperous and successful lives. I’m proud that Oklahomans today recognized this and united in approving State Questions 780 and 781.”
The Need for Reform
Oklahoma has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the country and the highest incarceration rate for women, which costs taxpayers more than $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.
State Questions 780 and 781
Through two ballot measures, the coalition worked 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 will reclassify certain low-level offenses, like drug possession and low-level property offenses, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. By reclassifying these offenses, Oklahoma is able to trigger cost savings from decreased corrections spending. Question 781 will then 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.