MIDWEST CITY — State lawmakers, several law enforcement officials and the head of a state law enforcement group on Thursday blasted measures passed by voters and introduced in the Legislature to change certain areas of the state’s criminal justice system.
The Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association’s gathering on Thursday at Rose State College featured U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and was attended by dozens of officials from police departments, sheriff’s offices, district attorney’s offices and other law enforcement agencies from around the state.
Ray McNair, the executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association praised Rep. Scott Biggs during the function for Biggs’ work in stopping several criminal justice measures last legislative session. Biggs, a republican from Chickasha, chairs the House Judiciary Criminal Justice and Corrections subcommittee and has been criticized by Fallin and groups like the ACLU for his efforts to stop multiple criminal justice reform bill from being heard last session.
“If it had not been for the efforts of Rep. Scott Biggs this session,” McNair said, “we would have had an additional 60 offenses changed from felonies to misdemeanors.”
Biggs told the group that Gov. Mary Fallin and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh were making dangerous changes to Oklahoma’s criminal justice system and letting out offenders who should not be released through a recently-announced program.
“How many of you over your law enforcement career have ever been kicked, hit, punched, or the ultimate insult — spit on?” Biggs asked the group. “Assault and battery on a police officer is a crime that not only the governor in her bills wants to have a reduced sentence for early release, but the Governor’s DOC director has decided in his illegal early release program that he will include assault and battery on a police officer” as a conviction eligible for the program.
Biggs then turned to the issue of flag desecration.
“Looking around the room, I want to talk about the American flag,” Biggs told the group. “I know there was a big protest last night at the Oklahoma City Council over the American flag. It’s a hot topic right now. I understand that. I know where I stand on the issue. I know what I believe on the issue. But would you believe the Governor and her DOC director want to reduce penalties and early release for those individuals who disgrace the American flag. I don’t think that’s something that Oklahoma really truly believes in, but that’s something they want to do.”
It was at first unclear what Biggs was referring to when he referenced an Oklahoma City Council “protest” having happened Wednesday. According to the city of Oklahoma City’s website, the last City Council meeting occurred on the morning of Oct. 10, 2017. A spokeswoman for the city confirmed that the city council did not meet on Wednesday night, and that there have been no protests at city meetings over the American flag.
However, about four hours before Biggs’ speech, Oklahoma City television station KOCO shared a post on Facebook about Ann Arbor, Mich., city council members kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity with the NFL football players who have recently been doing the same. However, neither the post nor the headline specified what city or state the incident occurred in, instead referring only to “city council members.”
Despite Biggs’ original claim that the protest happened in Oklahoma City, he later told The Frontier he was indeed referencing the Michigan council member protest.
“I was referring to the Ann Arbor City Council kneeling during (the) pledge that was running on the 6 a.m. news in OKC this morning,” Biggs wrote in an email to The Frontier.
Biggs also said he was referring what he said was an effort by Fallin and Allbaugh to reduce the penalties and allow “early release” from prison for those convicted of violating an Oklahoma law against desecrating – either by word or act – or defiling the United States flag.
Under the law, anyone found guilty of such a crime could be fined up to $3,000 and/or spend up to three years in prison.
State law also prohibits individuals and corporations from using the United States flag in advertising or in logos, though it is only a misdemeanor.
Flag desecration laws have been rarely enforced since a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision which stated flag desecration is protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections late Thursday afternoon was unable to immediately provide The Frontier with a list of individuals incarcerated for flag desecration.
During the lead-up to Sessions’ speech, which was closed to the general public but covered by several media outlets, officials warned the crowd of law enforcement officials to be wary of efforts to soften sentencing and reduce the severity classification of some crimes.
“This is going to be probably one of the biggest defensive years this association has ever had,” McNair said. “We are going to have to stop a lot of legislation. There will be attempts on gutting fines, fees and costs. There will also be changes in regard to felonies and misdemeanors.”
McNair said he did not know whether the association would be able to reverse some of the laws created by state questions 780 and 781 — two measures passed by voters in November that reclassified many drug possession crime from felonies to misdemeanors. Funds saved on incarceration costs as a result of State Question 780 are directed by State Question 781 to be directed to treatment services.
Those measures went into effect July 1.
McNair said the effects of the two state questions would be devastating for public safety and county jails, which would hold most of the offenders. McNair and other officials at the event said voters passed the measure because they did not understand what they were voting on and that large sums of out of state money from the American Civil Liberties Union helped fund the campaign to pass the measures, which campaign filings with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission confirm.
Voters had “been deceived and lied to about what is hidden in the bill, what is hidden in ballot questions,” said Rep. Tim Downing, R-Pauls Valley, a former prosecutor.
Downing said the Oklahoma Department of Corrections was using inflated numbers to scare people about prison overcrowding.
“I am not against using those numbers to advocate for funding,” Downing told the group. “What I am against is using those types of numbers to say we are in too big a hurry to listen to the valid concerns that the men and women in this room have who are in law enforcement, who are on the front lines putting their lives at risk to protect our public safety.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said the funds to pay for treatment have not yet began to flow, and expressed doubt about whether they ever would. Hunter said the Legislature should take the issue up next session and modify parts of the law affected by the ballot measures.
“I can’t do anything about the decision voters made with respect (to) 780/781. I believe in democracy, and we’ve got to do what we can to improve… the elements of 780,” Hunter said. “I am gravely concerned that the promise that was made to voters through 781, that there was going to be this peace dividend from corrections. Our prisons were going to cease to be overcrowded and there would be this avalanche of money available for treatment programs. Well, that’s not happening, and if it does happen, it’s not going to happen for a long time.”
While U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not specifically talk about Oklahoma’s criminal justice law changes past or pending, he did warn of the risks to law enforcement officers and the importance of supporting law enforcement.
“We will not participate in anything that would give the slightest comfort to radicals who promote agendas and preach hostility rather than respect for law officers,” Sessions said.
“We have your back,” Sessions said. “We understand one thing – criminals are the problem, law officers are the solution.”
Sessions also expressed support for civil asset forfeiture laws, and the U.S. Department of Justice has recently reopened a program allowing sharing of asset forfeiture funds between federal, state and local agencies that was shuttered under President Barack Obama.
“Funds that were once being used to take lives are now being used to save lives,” Sessions said.
A group of more than two dozen protesters stood across the street from the college, voicing concern about Sessions’ and President Donald Trump’s approach toward issues facing black Americans and American Indians, among other issues.
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma responded to Sessions’ appearance and officials’ statements about State Questions 780 and 781.
“As reformers from diverse political backgrounds and interests continue to push for desperately needed reform, it’s alarming to see law enforcement embrace policies that run contrary to the will, the well-being, the dignity, and the lives of the people they are duty bound to serve,” Kiesel said. “Oklahoma voters deserve better than to be treated like idiots. The pedantic political deception Sessions deployed today is a waste of Oklahoma voters’ time.”
Kris Steele, former Oklahoma House Speaker and chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (who was mentioned by some of the officials during the event), said the two ballot measures would save the state money in the long run.
“Oklahoma is bleeding teachers and cutting services to the mentally ill while wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders,” Steele said. “Oklahomans are smarter than this, demand better than this and deserve more than this. Instead of wasting money on failed policies that don’t make us safer, Oklahoma voters have clearly stated they favor utilizing taxpayer funds more efficiently to actually help Oklahomans and increase public safety.”