Communications and Policy Coordinator, Oklahoma
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Joe Griffin | April 23, 2019
A little more than two years ago, Oklahomans acknowledged that simply being in possession of a small amount of drugs should not earn someone a lengthy prison sentence and the scarlet letter of being a felon for the rest of their lives. Voters passed State Question 780 by 58 percent, making it so that anyone arrested for simple possession drugs is charged with a misdemeanor giving them a greater chance at successfully moving on with life.
But what about the people charged with felony possession prior to 2017?
Unfortunately, a good number of individuals sentenced prior to the passage of Question 780 are still behind bars for what is now considered a misdemeanor and countless others are hampered with the title of felon.
The “lock’em up and throw away the key” crowd will say offenders knew the consequences when it was a felony, but the shortsightedness of this mentality fails to address the fact that taxpayers are paying for unnecessary prison stays and society in general benefits from people who have an easier time finding a job and becoming taxpayers, rather than tax burdens.
This legislative session, lawmakers have a chance to make things right. House Bill 1269 would allow nonviolent offenders who are in prison for simple drug possession to be re-sentenced as misdemeanants. This would impact between 900 and 1000 inmates. While the mechanics of the legislation are still being worked out amongst lawmakers, individuals could have their convictions reduced to misdemeanors and then could also seek expungement of their records.
This would not only reduce Oklahoma’s overwhelming prison population, but would save taxpayers roughly $21,425 a year per inmate. Considering the pre-2017 offenders may no longer carry a felony status, reentry into society and the workforce should be significantly easier.
With every criminal justice reform bill, opponents will always find excuses for why we can’t do things. The tale being spun on this legislation is that House Bill 1269 would allow people charged with more serious crimes than simple drug possession to get out, and many of these individuals plead down from more serious crimes.
Facts and numbers say otherwise.
Open Justice Oklahoma used July 2018 data from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and records from the Oklahoma State Court Network to review the original charges for the 1,287 people in prison for simple possession only as of that date. Not a single person out of those 1,287 had originally been charged with a serious, violent crime that was pled down to simple possession. Only six percent had been charged with any more serious crime. That’s about 80 people!
The violent horde criminal justice naysayers warn us HB 1269 will unleash simply doesn’t exist according to state records.
Prison should be for the criminals we most fear and the real menaces of society. People with an addiction problem or who occasionally use a substance should not be in those categories. They need help, and frankly, it’s the moral and fiscally responsible thing to do. As stated above, Oklahoma voters agree, and recent polling done by Ascend Perspectives shows GOP voters support retroactively applying the new possession laws to past offenders ranging from 69 to 84 percent among several Senate districts.
HB 1269 has the potential to move the needle in the right direction. We’ll see what the final product lawmakers come up with soon, but the chatter at the Capitol indicates this is something constituents should let legislators know they are interested in.