Experts divided on state questions
Oklahoma laws affecting drug possession and a number of lower-level property crimes underwent significant revision on July 1, and proponents and opponents are still divided on their effect.
Oklahomans approved two state questions 780 and 781 last November. Supporters say they will help low-level offenders get the help they need without burdening them with felony records, while opponents worry that they take away leverage that prosecutors formerly had and will overburden county jails.
State Question 780 reclassified certain drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and State Question 781 created a fund to hold projected prison cost savings, which will be used to create treatment centers at the county level.
Although Oklahomans have differing perspectives of State Questions 780 and 781, voters said "yes" on the measures in November.
Kris Steele, chairman for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, endorses State Questions 780 and 781, while Jason Hicks, district attorney for District 6, opposes the measures.
Steele, executive director for The Educational and Employment Ministry (TEEM) and former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and Hicks both describe the state's criminal justice system as "broken." State prisons sit at 109 percent capacity, resulting in a backlog of over 1,800 individuals in county jails who are awaiting placement in prisons.
Foreseeing positive outcomes from State Questions 780 and 781, Steele said the laws' goals are "to reduce the number of low-level offenders who are sent to prison," "to address issues of addiction and mental illness with treatment rather than punishment" and "to make better use of state resources."
According to Steele, a low-level offender is someone with an addiction or mental illness who commits a non-violent crime.
Virtually 75 percent of state prisons are filled with low-level offenders, Steele said, but "mass incarceration in and of itself does not lead to reduction in crime."
"Ultimately we need to reconsider our approach to these low-level offenses," Steele said. "We need to make sure the space and resources exist for individuals who pose a legitimate danger or a threat to society and need to be incarcerated."
Treatment rather than incarceration
Although Steele said drugs are "dangerous and lead to problems" for anyone who abuses them, he believes jail is not the appropriate place for those with simple possession offenses.
"Just because a person battles addiction does not mean they're a bad person. They need help," he said. " ... Jails across Oklahoma have become the largest mental health providers in the county and in the state. The problem is jails are not designed, nor equipped, nor staffed to provide mental health care."
"Decriminalizing" versus "reclassifying" drug cases
Hicks, the district attorney for Caddo, Grady, Stephens and Jefferson counties, said he anticipates the bulk of State Question 780's effects to be negative because the measure essentially has "decriminalized" the possession of all controlled dangerous substances, including methamphetamine, heroin, phencyclidine (PCP) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
"(Those are) all of the really, really hard drugs that we've fought so hard to try to minimize on the streets in our communities," he said. "I'm really worried with it being a misdemeanor. Trust me, no offender is scared of a misdemeanor. Nobody is. ... I can tell you in my experience we see it in the courtrooms all the time a misdemeanor means nothing to these offenders."
According to Hicks, numerous factors may motivate a person to commit a violent crime, but often offenders often are driven by the drug trade and it's rare to see a "more serious crime that does not involve some type of drug."
"If you got a group of prosecutors together, you would hear kind of the same thing from all of us: It's rare that you see a robbery, a rape, a homicide or some type violent crime that's not tied to (drugs) or has some type of drug involved in it," Hicks said.
Unlike Hicks, Steele stands firm to the notion that State Questions 780 and 781 "do not legalize or decriminalize anything."
"What they do is reclassify simple drug possession for people who battle addiction and low-level property crimes that are often caused by addiction from felonies to misdemeanors," Steele said. "... I am not in favor of legalizing drugs, any drugs. I think addiction is a health issue, and I think it ought to be treated as such."