Ballot Measure Campaign Begins for Criminal Justice Reform

Mar 10, 2016

Women’s Defense Team Director Stephanie Horten (center) speaks Thursday at an Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform rally marking the start of a signature campaign to put two measures on the November ballot.
Credit Matt Trotter / KWGS

The push for a public vote on Oklahoma criminal justice reform begins in earnest.

Supporters' group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform needs 65,000 signatures by June to put two measures aimed at reducing the prison population and supplementing community intervention programs on the ballot.

One state question reclassifies some offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Tulsa Regional Chamber President and CEO Mike Neal said at least one in 12 Oklahomans has a felony conviction.

"Many of them for small, nonviolent infractions that will prevent them from entering the workforce throughout their lifetime," Neal said. "This contributes to workforce shortages, ... harming economic growth and really overburdening the taxpayers."

Women’s Defense Team Director Stephanie Horten said reclassifying simple drug possession charges and property crimes under $1,000 as misdemeanors would be a big help to women, whose lives are quickly turned upside down by the mere chance of a felony charge.

"They would spend less time in jail. They would be with their children. They'd be able to keep their driver's license," Horten said. "If you had a misdemeanor instead of a felony, you might actually be able to get a job. Most of the women we work with have a very, very hard time finding a job with a felony on their record. Most employers won't even look at someone who has a felony charge."

The other state question directs any savings from a smaller prison population back to county-level drug, mental health and job programs.

Adam Luck with conservative group Right on Crime said Texas enacted similar reforms in 2007.

"The State of Texas has saved close to $3 billion. They've closed three state facilities," Luck said. "They've cut their juvenile population by 52 percent, which has allowed them to close eight juvenile facilities, all while maintaining the lowest crime rates they've had since 1973."

According to Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, the state prison system costs taxpayers nearly $500 million a year while having the nation’s second-highest incarceration rate.