After Oklahoma’s resounding rejection of State Question 805, criminal justice reform advocates say they will now look back to the Legislature to take action to roll back lengthy prison sentences in the state.
The measure failed across the state except in Oklahoma County on Tuesday night. The defeat came as a surprise for a campaign backed by more than $7.2 million in in cash and in-kind contributions, mostly from the American Civil Liberties Union and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s lobbying group FWD.us.
Voters also weren’t swayed by a celebrity endorsement video from Scarlett Johansson.
Kris Steele, executive director of the group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, rejects the idea that most of the push for the state question came from forces outside of the state.
The ACLU and FWD.us backed the measure because of Oklahoma’s distinction for carrying the nation’s highest per-capita incarceration rate for African Americans, he said.
“That racial disparity is something that ought to bother every Oklahoman,” Steele said. “It caused organizations to pay attention and say, ‘Hey, can we help?’”
However, efforts to shorten prison sentences and roll back the use of sentence enhancements at the Legislature have so far been blocked by the state district attorneys and their political allies. The policy behind State Question 805 was first proposed at the Legislature in 2016, where it has never gained enough momentum to pass, Steele said.
Most recently, a bill backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform in 2019 would have limited the use of sentence enhancement for non-violent felony convictions passed unanimously in the Senate, but languished without action in the House of Representatives that year.
State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-OKC, told The Frontier he believes things may need to change and it may be up to the Legislature to take on some future criminal justice reforms.
“When I ran in 2016 the penny sales tax was on the ballot, but people said no,” Bennett said. “Then they held the Legislature’s feet to the fire and made them get it done. Maybe that will happen here (with criminal justice reforms.)”
Donelle Harder, a former policy advisor for Gov. Kevin Stitt, told The Frontier that she believes the rejection of SQ 805 may be tied to some recent successful government action in incarceration.
Late last year Oklahoma released hundreds of inmates from prison in a single commutation. It was believed to be the largest release of prison inmates from a one-day commutation in the nation’s history.
“SQ 805 came not long after that commutation,” Harder said. “If you look at medical marijuana and Medicaid, that, arguably, was people saying that they believed their desires were not being represented in the Legislature. But there has been movement in criminal justice reforms in Oklahoma. The backlash (against SQ 805) could have been that there was a constitutional change running within a year of a record commutation.”
Nicole McAfee, director for policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Oklahoma, believes the state’s attitudes on criminal justice issues are starting to shift, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to grow support for some reforms.
In talking to voters about SQ 805, McAfee believes many were confused about what the proposal would do and how it would affect public safety.
Opposition to 805 campaigned heavily on the fact that many domestic violence offenses are not classified as violent felonies in the state.
“There’s still this misunderstanding that prisons are keeping us safer,” McAfee said. “A lot of the opposition was based on the idea that somehow the status quo promises us safety, when it doesn’t.”
The Criminal Justice Reclassification Council, a committee tasked by the state in 2018 to make recommendations on felonies to reduce or hold the state’s prison population is set to issue a report early next year to the Legislature.