Oklahoma currently has the second-highest overall incarceration rate in the nation, and the first overall incarceration rate for women. Rather than slowing down, the prison population in the state has increased by 12 percent between 2009 and 2014. Costs associated with these statistics are estimated at $500 million every year, with taxpayers footing the bill.
Recent efforts to improve the criminal justice system on the state level include work by the groups Right on Crime Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Policy Institute, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Families Against Mandatory Minimums-Oklahoma, and the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (or OCJR) coalition, led by former House Speaker Kris Steele. This group, advocating for "sentencing reforms for certain low-level offenses, which trigger cost savings to be invested in evidence-based programs to treat drug addiction and mental health conditions and provide access to education and job training, which are more effective approaches to reducing crime and keeping communities safe," is also behind State Questions 780 and 781, which will appear on the November ballot.
About SQs 780 & 781
According to Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, SQ 780 "reclassifies certain low-level offenses, like drug possession and property offenses under $1,000, as misdemeanors instead of felonies. Reclassifying these offenses triggers savings from reduced prison populations, decreased costs, and avoided increases in corrections spending," while SQ 781 "returns those savings to local governments to invest in rehabilitative programming tailored to the needs of their communities. Addressing the root causes of crime through mental health care, substance abuse treatment, and education and job training programs has a proven track record of increasing public safety more cost-effectively than locking people up for low-level offenses."
Recent legislative efforts
Criminal justice reforms are not new to this year. Governor Fallin also signed HB 3052 in 2012, creating the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which sought to provide avenues for rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders with addiction or mental health problems. In 2015, Fallin signed the Justice Safety Valve Act, which allows judges discretion to impose shorter sentences for some nonviolent crimes which previously would have required more lengthy mandatory prison time. In 2016, Fallin signed HB 2479, which reduced maximum sentences for certain first or second drug offenses and did away with mandatory minimums for those crimes.