Over the past few years, Oklahomans, legislators and state leaders have taken the right steps to reform our criminal justice system in a way that will increase public safety, create more economic opportunities, save taxpayers’ dollars and strengthen our communities and families.
The voters showed their commitment to this work in 2016, when they overwhelmingly approved State Questions 780 and 781. These reforms reduced certain nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, with simple drug possession and low level theft being the most important changes. SQ 780’s goal was to halt Oklahoma’s growing incarceration crisis by reducing the number of Oklahomans given lengthy prison sentences for low-level offenses. The data shows it is working.
Earlier this year, the Legislature, with important support from the governor, passed legislation giving those previously convicted of these offenses the opportunity to expunge their felony convictions and giving those currently incarcerated the chance to reduce their sentences.
In addition, these reforms give Oklahomans a second chance to be with their families, become productive citizens and have a meaningful career, which strengthens our state’s economy and creates a stronger workforce.
The effort has been very effective, and as of Nov. 1, hundreds of Oklahomans currently incarcerated for offenses that are now misdemeanors will be eligible to return home to their families. These changes are a first step in meeting the governor’s commitment to make Oklahoma a top 10 state.
This is just the beginning of needed changes in the criminal justice system, but it is a major step forward.
In addition, there are as many as 60,000 Oklahomans with past felony convictions for offenses that now would be misdemeanors. These Oklahomans will now have the opportunity to remove those felonies from their record through expungement and, thus, have greater possibilities of obtaining meaningful jobs, adequate housing and the ability to better support their families while contributing to the overall economy.
SQ 780 retroactivity removes stringent economic barriers placed on Oklahomans convicted of felonies for low-level offenses. It gives them a chance to create their own economic opportunity, no matter their background, and ultimately builds a better Oklahoma. We should be more open to criminal justice reforms that motivate and incentivize rather than promote harsh punishments, which have proven ineffective.
There are thousands of jobs sitting open today in Oklahoma, and there are thousands of Oklahomans sitting in prison today for low-level drug or property crimes that if committed today would not lead to prison time. These men and women want to return to our communities and to work, but our state’s excessive sentencing laws and punitive system are needlessly keeping them from their families and a productive life.
Some prosecutors across the state continue to argue that the passage of these questions has led to an increase in property crime. The data suggests otherwise. According to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Oklahoma has seen a 13% decrease in reports of larceny since 2012. While there was a slight uptick in 2018, there were still 10,000 fewer reported larcenies than seven years ago, and the overall trend has continued downward.
According to recent polling, the public support for criminal justice reform has never been stronger. Every effort must be made to maximize the will of the people with SQ 780 and 781 and the legislation making 780 retroactive. We need these people working and with their families, not sitting in prison.
Gene Rainbolt, chairman emeritus of BancFirst Corp., serves on the board of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.