September 14, 2016
Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms
Though I am thoroughly depressed by my Presidential choices in Campaign 2016 (and remain distressing undecided about whether and how I will cast a top-of-the-ticket vote), I am thoroughly excited by all the interesting (and unpredictable) criminal justice reform initiatives that are going to voters in lots of states this November. The highest-profile reform initiatives are probably those in five states seeking to legalize recreational marijuana and the handful of others seeking to legalize medical marijuana. But also getting plenty of attention are the death penalty repeal/reform/retain votes that will take place in California and Nebraska. But this new article from Fusion, headlined "Why Oklahoma activists are bringing criminal justice reforms directly to voters," helps spotlight why I think criminal justice reformers should really be paying extra attention to the Sooner State. Here are excerpts:
Oklahomans will vote in November on two proposals that could significantly reduce the number of people sent to prison in one of the most incarcerating states in the country. The measures, State Questions 780 and 781, would reclassify simple drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 from felonies to misdemeanors. Instead of prison time, people convicted of those crimes would receive drug treatment, mental health treatment, and rehabilitation programs that would be paid for by the savings from not locking them up.
Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, after Louisiana, and its prisons are at 115% capacity. If the measures are approved by voters, they’re expected to reduce annual prison admissions by 25%, the rate of new inmates who are currently convicted of low-level property crimes and drug possession. Because it costs Oklahoma $15,000 to incarcerate someone and only $6,000 to treat them while they’re on probation, the state could save between $30 and $40 million a year. Reducing the number of felonies would also mean less people would struggle to find employment, housing, and education because of a permanent criminal record. One in 12 state residents is a convicted felon, according to The Oklahoman newspaper.
Legislators and Governor Mary Fallin have already taken steps to reform the state’s criminal justice system, including lowering mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and raising the threshold for some property felonies to $1,000. But Kris Steele, the former Republican Speaker of the State House and one of the referendums’ chief backers, said most legislators would be wary of being tarred as “soft on crime” if they passed broader reforms to drug laws.
“We want to sort of bypass the political gridlock that has set us back and give the people of Oklahoma a chance to weigh in on these issues,” he told me. “If we are successful in November, I truly believe the legislature will feel like the people have spoken and that it’s OK and probably even expected to take a smarter approach to criminal justice policy.” Of course, the opposite is also true. “If these state questions do not pass in November, it’s likely that the legislature will interpret that result as the people have spoken and we’re probably done talking about this issue for the next 10 years,” he said. “That keeps me up at night.”
That makes it a high-risk, high-reward proposition for criminal justice activists, who so far have been mostly focused on lobbying legislators. The only other state with criminal justice reform on the ballot in November is California, where voters will decide whether to support a measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would allow thousands of inmates serving time for nonviolent charges to get early parole. (Californians and Nebraskans will also vote on referendums over ending the death penalty.)...
Nationally, polls show that Americans support reforms to reduce sentences for low-level criminals, especially those convicted of drug crimes. Steele said internal polling has shown Oklahomans are also supportive of the measures. The coalition of groups supporting the initiatives — known as Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform — includes the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative group Right on Crime, and several law enforcement leaders. So far, supporters of the initiatives have collected 110,000 signatures to get each of the measures on the ballot and held a series of town hall meetings around the state promoting them. Now they’re planning direct mail and TV ads in the two months until election day....
There doesn’t seem to be any organized group opposing the measures, although some sheriffs and prosecutors have spoken out against them. The proposals’ supporters want “to let everybody out of prison, and that’s not what’s healthy for the communities,” Greg Mashburn, the DA for Cleveland County, told The Norman Transcript. Steele said he’d encourage activists in other states to take reform initiatives straight to the voters. “It’s resulted in a very healthy conversation happening in our state” about the costs of mass incarceration, he said—one that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
For so many reasons, I think this direct democracy vote in Oklahoma could have profound echoes throughout the nation, especially if "deep red" Oklahoma voters, while mostly voting for "law and order" Prez candidate Donald Trump, end up voting for significant sentencing reform in the state. Not only will approval of sentencing reforms by direct democracy likely make Oklahoma elected officials feel more comfortable moving forward with legislative reforms, I think it will send a very strong message to lots of political observers and policy advocates nationwide that the "Right on Crime" movement has real majority support among even conservative-minded voters.
Based on developments in many states and especially at the federal level, it still seems the reality that many politicians, especially older ones on both sides of the aisle, continue to believe quite strongly that vocally supporting significant criminal justice reforms risks a kind of political suicide. That said, the recent modern success that "deep red states like Texas and Georgia have experienced with "smart-on-crime" reforms has played a major role in giving the "Right on Crime" movement momentum, and that momentum has carried over in a number of other red and purple states. But at the federal law, persistent "soft-on-crime" political fears, especially among "old-guard" Democratic leaders like the Clintons and Senators Reid and Representative Pelosi, in my view largely explains why significant statutory sentencing reforms (other than the middling Fair Sentencing Act) have not gotten done throughout the Obama era.
Many people for sensible reasons think the fate of federal sentencing reforms now will turn on who is the next occupant in the Oval Office and who controls the Senate. But I really believe that if Oklahoma voters end up significantly supporting sentencing reform in their state (especially if Trump wins in OK by, say, a 55/40 vote but then sentencing reform is supported by a 60/40 vote), we all can and should become a lot more optimistic about even federal sentencing reforms over the next decade no matter who is in control in DC. For this reason (and others), I strongly believe that criminal-justice-reform-minded "big donors" — yes, I am talking to you Koch brothers and Mr. Soros — should think very seriously about devoting resources to this initiative campaign where a little extra campaign investment could go a very long way in fostering reform in a lot more places than just Oklahoma.
September 14, 2016 at 09:06 AM | Permalink