“For the fifth straight year since its passage, advocates protected State Question 780 — a 2016 ballot initiative — from being rolled back by reform opponents intent on undoing the will of the people.”
The 2021 legislative session has come to an end with some notable successes on criminal justice reform, and yet we know there still is considerable work to do to address Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. But this session, the justice reform coalition marked an important milestone. For the fifth straight year since its passage, advocates protected State Question 780 — a 2016 ballot initiative — from being rolled back by reform opponents intent on undoing the will of the people.
Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, in large part because it hands down extreme prison sentences for drug and property crimes. These harsh sentences have not made Oklahoma safer, but instead have resulted in out of control prison spending, while harming families and leaving communities without adequate resources to treat drug addiction and mental health issues.
One out of every two adults in the United States has had a close family member incarcerated at some point in their lives, and that number is very similar among Oklahomans. People from communities across the state have too often seen their loved ones who are struggling with trauma, addiction, and mental health concerns sent to prison instead of getting the treatment they need.
In response, voters in 2016 passed two landmark reforms. State Question 780 (SQ 780) changed simple drug possession and low-level property crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor no longer punishable by a prison sentence. State Question 781 (SQ 781) directed the state to reinvest savings resulting from SQ 780 in substance abuse and mental health services.
SQ 780 has been a resounding success story for Oklahoma. In the first year after it went into effect, SQ 780 reversed 10 years of growth in felony filings, marking a sea change in how Oklahoma handled low-level offenses. Despite fear mongering from opponents that criminal justice reform would increase crime, law enforcement data shows that property crime rates have declined since the passage of SQ 780, both statewide and in major metropolitan areas.