State Question 805 will be on the ballot for Oklahomans in November.
The measure is an attempt to reduce prison populations by limiting “extreme sentences for nonviolent crimes.” The bill will also retroactively downgrade the sentences of those who are currently serving compounded prison sentences for nonviolent crimes and those who are scheduled to serve those sentences in the future.
One of the main selling points of the bill is that it will save taxpayers an estimated $186 million of the next 10 years.
According to Yes on 805, Oklahoma taxpayers spend over $500 million each year paying for prison overcrowding.
State Question 805 would stop Oklahoma courts from adding years to a person’s prison sentence for nonviolent crimes, such as alcohol and drug related offenses, tax crimes and receipt of stolen goods or theft. People convicted of such nonviolent crimes, “Could be sentenced to the maximum allowable time in prison for their crime, but would not receive additional time in prison because of their past,” According to Yes on 805. Examples cited by the movement are the sentences of a man in Oklahoma who served 33 years in prison for writing $400 worth of bad checks, as well as a mother who stole basic necessities and toys from a Walmart who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Former Oklahoma Representative Kris Steele is campaigning for the bill. He successfully campaigned for State Questions 780, which made low-level drug possession and property crimes misdemeanors, and 781 (creating a rehabilitation fund), which passed in 2016.
“The next logical step to moving forward and rightsizing Oklahoma’s prison population is to create a standard sentencing guideline for nonviolent offenses,” Steele said. “Oklahoma is not only sending more people to prison per capita than any other state in the nation, people in Oklahoma are going to prison for much, much longer than they would in any other state.”
Former Oklahoma Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gen. Rita Aragon, another proponent of the bill, said it will affect small towns such as Guthrie as much as it will affect major cities. Even prisons with relatively small populations are only built to house a certain amount of inmates and reducing that amount will cut costs in that area as well.
Aragon also said current prison sentence rules can also target the mentally ill.
“I will tell you that it affects every rural community in this state, and it affects every person in this state who has a loved one who has had mental health issues and is self-medicated,” Aragon said. “I’m telling you as a human being looking at other human beings and saying, ‘We’ve really overdone this, it’s just out of control,’ and 805 helps resize that. It’s not going to fix it all, but it will help resize that.”
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has been critical of State Question 805 in interviews. Recently, he voiced concerns that the bill would reverse enhancements for human trafficking and domestic violence.
“I want to be very respectful, because I appreciate Gov. Stitt and I appreciate his leadership, but I would tell you that there is some misinformation around some of the details within the policy,” Steele said. “For instance, human trafficking is a violent offense, so 805 does not even apply to that at all. There are safeguards in place, the legislature actually reclassified domestic violence as a violent crime this last session.”
Steele said if State Question 805 passes, there will be new steps taken to reduce the burden on nonviolent offenders, as well as other prison policies, such as bail reform.
“We also have work to do around our bail schedules and bail practices,” Steele said. “We are holding people in jail, there are people who are innocent, they haven’t been found guilty of anything, that are held in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay their bond. This concept of a debtor’s prison is actually not even allowed in our country’s constitution. A debtor’s prison is forbidden, so we have work to do around our bail practices on the front end.”