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Five Years of Defending State Question 780

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. 

It is my hope that lawmakers do not continue to bring forth bills that roll back the will of the people and instead focus on common-sense criminal justice reform that will safely reduce the prison population and free up taxpayer money.

Since SQ 780 passed, Oklahoma’s prison population has declined, aided by the passage of additional reforms. In 2019, the legislature doubled down on this smart approach by passing HB 1269, a reform to apply SQ 780 retroactively and allow people who were serving long sentences for 780 offenses to have their sentences commuted. Governor Stitt signed the bill into law resulting in the commutation and release of 467 people, at the time the largest single day commutation in the country. One of those who gained her freedom that day was Tess Harjo, a 28-year-old woman serving a 15-year sentence for simple possession. Harjo, who had battled addiction since the age of 13 after the death of her mother, was greeted tearfully by grandmother outside the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma.

Despite these successes and continued strong support for SQ 780 among voters, reform opponents have tried to roll back SQ 780 and continue to spread misinformation about its impact on public safety. These efforts to undo the will of the voters started in 2017 even before SQ 780 went into effect and have continued each year since then. This year was no different. In the 2021 legislative session, three bills were introduced aimed at repealing pieces of SQ 780. These rollback measures would have increased the prison population and made people more likely to receive felony convictions for drug possession or minor property offenses.

Thanks to the efforts of criminal justice reform advocates and supporters across the state who called and emailed their state legislators, these three bills did not pass. As a result, the effort to undo SQ 780 has failed again for the fifth year in a row. In keeping with the will of the people, legislators for the first time allocated a portion of the savings derived from SQ 780 (estimated savings were $10.5 million for FY 2020) to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health to stand up mobile crisis intervention units across the state. 

It is my hope that lawmakers do not continue to bring forth bills that roll back the will of the people and instead focus on common-sense criminal justice reform that will safely reduce the prison population and free up taxpayer money. But as we look ahead and press for solutions to Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis, we must also protect the progress we’ve made. Oklahoma’s families cannot afford to move backwards on reform.

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