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Felony filings down in wake of SQ 780

Felony filings across the state have decreased since a state question that Oklahoma voters approved took effect July 1.

During the first six months of the implementation of State Question 780, felony filings declined 26 percent across Oklahoma's 77 counties, according to Kris Steele, chairperson for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform and executive director for The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM).

"Within those cases (covered by SQ 780), felony counts are down 28 percent," Steele said. "The analysis was conducted by the Oklahoma Policy Institute," a member of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.

A decrease in felony filings could, but is not necessarily guaranteed, to reduce the prison population.

State Question 780 reclassified simple drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies  for which offenders may be sentenced to state prison  to misdemeanors, for which offenders may serve up to 12 months in county jail, altogether forgoing prison. 

The statewide effects of State Question 781, which is complementary to State Question 780, will not been seen until funding is available, according to Steele.

Under State Question 780, the Legislature will appropriate the savings accumulated from avoided incarceration rates to counties "for use by local mental health and substance abuse treatment providers," Steele said.

Those additional dollars for treatment will be accessible next fiscal year, he added.

Steele, along with William Hobbs, administrator for Comanche County Detention Center, believe State Questions 780 and 781 are a step in the right direction toward criminal justice reform. 

A breakdown of the impact of State Question 780

Steele said under State Question 780, misdemeanor drug possession and property offenses remain real crimes with consequences, but the difference is that now Oklahomans are no longer "being saddled with scarlet-letter felonies and excessive felony fines and fees."

Although drug possession is now a misdemeanor, drug distribution remains a felony, and drug distribution felony cases have increased.

"Since July 1, drug distribution felony case filings have totaled nearly 1,400  an 18 percent increase over the same period in 2016," Steele said.

The Lawton Constitution accessed the Oklahoma Supreme Court Network System website to determine the number of misdemeanor and felony filings during the last six months of 2013 through 2017 in Comanche, Stephens, Grady and Caddo counties. The last six months of 2017 were the first six months of State Question's 780 implementation.

Compared to the last six months of 2016, the latter half of 2017 saw a decrease in felony filings and an increase in misdemeanors within Comanche, Stephens and Grady counties. 

In Comanche County, 1,979 more misdemeanors were filed during the last six months of 2017 than in the last six months of 2016, while 554 fewer felonies were filed during the same time frames. 

During the last six months of the past five years, felony filings have decreased in Comanche County, while misdemeanor filings have increased. Felonies dropped from 2,083 in the last six months of 2013 to 1,995 during the latter half of 2017.

During the last six months of 2013, misdemeanor filings totaled 3,731 in Comanche County. Five years later, they topped 6,061 for July to December 2017.

A similar pattern on a much smaller scale is present in Stephens and Grady counties.

In Stephens County, seven more misdemeanors were filed in the latter part of 2017 than in 2016. Felonies decreased from 1,349 during the last six months of 2016 to 828 in 2017  which is 521 fewer felonies filed.

The Lawton Constitution

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