In November of 2016, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 780, a measure to reclassify certain lower-level felony drug possession and theft offenses as misdemeanors. The measure is expected to reduce the state’s incarceration rates and expenses. A companion measure, State Question 781, will redistribute the cost savings to community rehabilitation efforts, including mental-health and substance-abuse treatment.
These changes come in response to Oklahoma’s widely recognized prison problem. According to U.S. Department of Justice figures, Oklahoma has the nation’s highest imprisonment rate for women and second-highest overall imprisonment rate (1). The state also has the nation’s highest proportion of corrections-involved people who are in prison instead of in supervised community release programs (2).
According to former Oklahoma State Speaker of the House Kris Steele, chief proponent of the reform initiatives, the changes are expected to reduce the number of new Oklahoma prisoners by 35 percent over the next 10 years, from 10,000 to 6,500. The savings is expected to reach $10 million a year.
If the laws are implemented as voted, savings will be proportionally distributed to counties based on the most recent census.
In a $10 million savings scenario, Tulsa County could expect to see about $1.6 million in new support annually. The State Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) is tasked with drafting the implementation rules for distributing funds. OMES did not respond to a request for an interview.
This shift in approach could help restore hope and stability to the lives of affected Oklahomans. Steele explained that the substantial burdens of felony convictions include longer prison terms, increased risk of recidivism, lifelong social stigma, the loss of employment and housing opportunities, and steep fees that are increasingly used to fund the system.
Attorney Jill Webb, Community Resource Coordinator in the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office, routinely sees the personal and family impact of felony convictions for relatively minor offenses. She described one client who had pled to a six-year suspended sentence on a meth possession charge. After four trouble-free years, he was convicted of falsifying a pawn-shop declaration and was sent away to begin his 6-year prison term, leaving his family with no income. The man’s wife had just called Webb’s office for help keeping the electricity on.
“This kind of impact is disproportionate to the offense,” Webb said. “It’s not that these people are innocent, but they don’t deserve to go to prison for years at a time.”
Reclassified under the new law, drug possession misdemeanors would carry a maximum sentence of one year in the county jail, Webb added.
Webb also disputed the idea that a felony charge is necessary to pressure addicts into recovery or to force them into prison-based treatment programs.
“Most people don’t need a felony conviction hanging over their heads to want to get off drugs,” she said. “The punishment for being a meth addict is being a meth addict.”
Webb said that alongside the good work of Tulsa organizations including John 3:16, Iron Gate, the Salvation Army, and the 12 & 12 Addiction Recovery Center, she hopes the new state laws will help fund more job placement support for men.
Shift toward treatment
“Being a breadwinner is so important to how these men see themselves,” she said. “That’s how they define themselves as a success.”
Although she recognizes skepticism among prosecutors about the new laws, Webb said she is hopeful that Oklahoma’s shift toward treatment will prove itself right in the end.
“I’m hoping the DAs will give this approach a try, and they will see that it’s not a catastrophe, and that we can get treatment to more of the people who need it,” she said. “That, at least, is the intent of the law and the will of the people.”
Following his legislative career, Steele, now serving as Executive Director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) in Oklahoma City, said his current job has shown him that people are capable of tremendous resilience. He said he also takes seriously the call of scripture to minister to five expressly named groups: widows, orphans, strangers (“immigrants” in modern vernacular), the sick, and those in prison.
“I’m at a point in my journey now where I believe that [prison ministry] is God’s gift to us,” he said. “Never have I seen a more tangible picture of the redemption process than when I work with an individual who has messed up so badly that they feel like they’ve lost all hope, and that their lives are completely over. And then hope is renewed, and they begin to put the pieces of the puzzle back together. And then suddenly they have a future, and a bright hope for their lives. And they walk differently; they carry themselves differently; they interact differently. They see others differently, and they have a new outlook on life. So, I feel blessed— very grateful for the opportunity to work with individuals impacted by the criminal justice system for that reason.”
(1) In 2014, Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate for women was 142 per 100,000 residents, and its overall imprisonment rate was 928 per 100,000 residents. Carson, E. Ann, et al. Prisoners in 2014. U.S. Department of Justice, September 2015. NCJ 248955.
(2) 55.3%. Kaeble, Danielle, et al. Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014. U.S. Department of Justice, December 2015. NCJ 249513.
[ Note: As this story was being filed in early 2017, Oklahoma legislators were filing bills for the 2017 session that would undo substantial provisions of SQ780 and SQ781. According to NewsOK, Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, had filed such a bill, claiming that voters had not understood what they were voting for. The outlet also reported that Terri White, Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said she wanted the treatment funding provided by SQ781 to be redirected from county-by-county distribution to the control of her agency. The bill to repeal sections of State Question 781—the initiative that reclassified certain property offenses and drug possession violations as misdemeanor crimes—was introduced in the Oklahoma State Legislature, but it was not approved in the 2017 session.]
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