Voters provide momentum to more criminal justice changes
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma voters last week approved two state questions aimed at curbing the state’s rapidly growing prison population, a decision likely to provide momentum for further changes to the state’s criminal justice system.
State Question 780, which reclassifies drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 to misdemeanors, passed with more than 58 percent of the vote. A companion measure that would reinvest any savings into substance abuse and mental health treatment, State Question 781, was approved with more than 56 percent of the vote.
“The people of Oklahoma have decided that we can no longer afford to fill our prisons with individuals suffering from addiction; that strategy has been far too costly in dollars and in lives,” said Gov. Mary Fallin. “This historic vote reflects a fundamental change in the way our state understands and treats drug addiction, a disease that has destroyed too many of our families. This is a great step.”
MORE CHANGES LIKELY
Fallin has put together a criminal justice reform task force that is being aided by the Crime and Justice Institute and the Pew Charitable Trusts, two national groups that have helped other states develop strategies for reducing incarceration rates. At the same time, Oklahoma and Tulsa counties are working with another group, the Vera Institute, on ways to control jail populations.
Among the ideas being discussed are ways to divert more offenders from prison through the use of probation, electronic monitoring and intermediate sanctions, as well as how to provide more treatment programs to inmates while they’re incarcerated to reduce recidivism rates.
OPPOSITION TO REFORMS
Opposition to the state questions came mostly from law enforcement and prosecutors who argue that making possession of dangerous drugs like cocaine, meth and heroin a misdemeanor, even for repeat offenders, takes away leverage they have to force drug addicts into treatment and sends the wrong message to young people.
“I seriously worry that what we’ve just told our young adults is that meth, cocaine, heroin and all those drugs are not that big a deal,” said Kevin Buchanan, district attorney for Washington and Nowata counties in northeast Oklahoma. “Our prisons are not full of people who are in there for just possessing (drugs).”
THE PRISON PROBLEM
The impetus for criminal justice reform is the state’s rapidly growing prison population, which is continuing to strain a state budget already decimated by dwindling revenues. Oklahoma currently has the second highest incarceration rate in the nation, second only to Louisiana, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The state’s incarceration rate for women has been the highest in the nation for more than two decades.
Largely the result of harsh penalties for drug crimes and mandatory minimum sentences, the state’s prison population has swelled from about 23,550 in 2006 to nearly 29,000 last year.
Current projections show the prison population growing by another 10,000 inmates over the next decade, according to the governor’s office.
BROAD COALITION OF SUPPORT
Support for further changes to the state’s criminal justice system is coming from a broad coalition that includes clergy, business leaders, judges, civil libertarians and conservative think-tanks.
“In a campaign season that was marked with rancor and polarization and just a whole lot of hostility, I truly believe Oklahoma emerged as a bright spot and a reminder that people from different perspectives and all walks of life can still work together to solve problems,” said former House Speaker Kris Steele, who spearheaded the effort to put SQ 780 and 781 on the ballot.
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