Oklahoma Voters Prefer Rehabilitation to Long Prison Sentences

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, and it locks up more women than any other state. This is largely due to tough anti-drug laws which send people to prison for relatively minor crimes.

For example, simple drug possession--the possession of a controlled substance for personal use rather than for distribution or sale--has been, in most cases, a felony crime in Oklahoma and subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Marijuana possession, though a misdemeanor on the first offense, was a felony for second and subsequent convictions.

Additionally, nonviolent property crimes like theft and fraud were also prosecuted as felonies if the value of the property involved was $500 or greater. The Oklahoma legislature took a step in the right direction when it passed House Bill 2751, which raised the threshold for felony prosecution of property crimes from $500 to $1,000.

On Tuesday, when Oklahomans cast their votes for president and state leaders, they were also asked to weigh in on several issues facing the state. Among those were two companion state questions regarding criminal justice reform.

Oklahoma voters resoundingly demonstrated that they were tired of a "tough on crime" approach that led to overcrowded state prisons and offered little chance of rehabilitation. When voters approves SQ 780 and 781, they showed that a "smart on crime" approach is better for Oklahoma.

So what do SQ 780 and 781 do?

SQ 780 is a criminal justice reform law that reduces certain nonviolent drug crimes and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Many of the property crimes addressed in this question were already covered under HB 2751; however, because SQ 781, which addresses funding for community rehabilitation, was tied to the passing of SQ 780, the question necessarily remained on the ballot.

Because nearly 70 percent of Oklahoma voters approved SQ 780, simple drug possession becomes a misdemeanor. Other drug crimes, such as possession of a CDS with intent to distribute and trafficking in illegal drugs, remain felonies.

Additionally, SQ 780 raises the threshold for felony prosecution of nonviolent property crimes from $500 to $1,000. Property crimes included in SQ 780 include false declaration of a pawn ticket, embezzlement, larceny, grand larceny, theft, receiving or concealing stolen property, taking domesticated fish or game, fraud, forgery, counterfeiting, and issuing bogus checks. If the value of the stolen, concealed, or misappropriated property or funds is less than $1,000, these crimes will be charged as misdemeanors. If the value is $1,000 or greater, they are charged as felony crimes.

SQ 781 is intended to take the savings the state should see from reducing the prison population and roll them into community rehabilitation programs, including substance abuse treatment and mental health services.

Both new laws become effective July 1, 2017.