“Of the 442 people released in November 2019, 22 had returned to prison by the end of 2021, a recidivism rate of 5%.”
In November 2016, Oklahomans voted overwhelmingly for SQ 780 to make simple drug possession and some low-level theft crimes misdemeanors rather than felonies. This change would have a number of benefits: misdemeanor crimes could not be subject to prison time and the state would save money by reducing its reliance on punishment to respond to substance use-based crimes. The hope, embodied in SQ 781 which passed at the same time, was that those savings would be redirected into substance use and mental health treatment. SQ 780 was not applied retroactively, meaning that it did nothing to help people who had been convicted of these crimes in the past – including those who were still in prison serving time for these crimes.
Before SQ 780 passed, simple possession was the number one crime for which people went to prison in Oklahoma. Over 2,700 people were in prison for this crime on any given day and the average sentence was eight years. After passage, the number of people going to prison began to decline, but many were left behind serving long sentences that would no longer be legal if the crime was committed today. The state legislature decided to address this issue by passing HB1269, which created a special commutation docket to help release people who were still in prison for simple possession and low-level theft. Governor Stitt signed this law in May 2019 and it went into effect November 1, 2019.