OKLAHOMA CITY — Criminal justice reform advocates Tuesday said it’s time for prosecutors to stop using sentencing enhancements to add prison time for non-violent offenders.
Members of the bipartisan coalition Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform filed a ballot initiative that — if approved by voters — would force prosecutors to stop the practice for low-level property and drug crimes. It also would allow an unknown number of current inmates to petition courts for sentencing relief.
“People in Oklahoma who may have a problem or who may need help can have years and decades and even life tacked onto their sentences if they’ve ever committed a crime in their past,” said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.
If supporters can gather about 178,000 signatures over the next few months, the measure would appear on a 2020 ballot.
Despite widespread support from elected leaders and voters, legislation to halt the practice was introduced in the Legislature for three consecutive years but failed to gain traction, Steele said.
Even with the proposed reforms, repeat offenders can still go to prison but wouldn’t face excessive sentences like life for nonviolent offenses, he said.
“At some point, we have to begin to address the root cause behind the antisocial behavior,” he said. “So long as we’re consistently reactive, we’re never going to see a reduction in our crime rates or an increase in our public safety. So the reality is these reforms allow us to safely reduce our prison population, freeing up additional resources that can be reinvested to address the root cause.”
Steele said repeat drug offenders tend to spend 79 percent longer in Oklahoma prisons than anywhere else in the country. The state’s low-level property offenders tend to spend 70 percent longer in prison.
But Steele said the group’s proposal previously faced opposition from prosecutors. He expects to face the same resistance going forward.
Officials with the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council said Oklahomans need to consider the consequences of the proposed state question before signing a petition to support it.
In a statement, the group said that there are already some elements which stand out as "detrimental, if not catastrophic, for public safety."
For instance, child trafficking and hate offenses are not considered violent crimes, said Jason Hicks, the district attorney for Caddo, Grady, Stephens and Jefferson counties.
The state has already made significant strides in reducing the incarceration rates, said Angela Marsee, the association's president-elect and a district attorney.
“Instead of trying to ignore past convictions of repeat offenders, we need to be investing in services so people do not become repeat offenders,” she said. “Statistics prove much of the criminal activity in Oklahoma is done by repeat offenders. To say we are going to disregard that past history as we protect the public is detrimental to our mission.”
Gene Rainbolt, BancFirst chairman emeritus, said he’s always focused on return on investment.
“I’ve never seen an investment that has a greater negative return than our criminal justice system in Oklahoma,” he said.
Rainbolt, who supports the initiative, said he’d prefer to spend funds on education, medical care and rehabilitation than on the incarcerating people for extended periods.
Sonya Pyles, a criminal justice reform advocate from Tulsa, said she served nearly three years of a six-year sentence. Her sentence was enhanced due to prior convictions.
Pyles said it's critical that the state address the underlying issues putting people on the pathway to incarceration.
“We need to end Oklahoma’s mass incarceration crisis,” she said. “We need to stop tearing apart families and hurting our communities.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.