OKLAHOMA CITY – Felony filings in Oklahoma are down 26 percent in the first six months since State Question 780 took effect, according to a court case analysis by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR).
“It will take several years to evaluate the full effectiveness of these laws, but seeing such a dramatic drop in felony filings is encouraging. Our prisons truly cannot handle more nonviolent offenders who shouldn’t be there, so this drop in felony filings should provide some relief while giving Oklahomans opportunities for restoration through treatment,” said Kris Steele, OCJR chairman. “SQ 781’s treatment component will have kicked in by this time next year, and in the years after that, we can begin to determine the full impact of the important work Oklahoma voters have done.”
SQs 780 and 781, which were overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2016, took effect July 1, 2017.
SQ 780 reclassified simple drug possession and minor property offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. SQ 781 redirected resulting cost savings from avoided incarceration costs to mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Felony case filings in Oklahoma’s 77 counties are down 26 percent, according to OCJR’s analysis. Within those cases, felony counts are down 28 percent. The analysis was conducted by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which is a member of OCJR.
“We have to remember that, even with these changes, Oklahoma’s prison population is still projected to grow 25 percent in the next 10 years unless further action is taken,” Steele said. “As these laws take effect, we will remain diligent in urging our elected leaders to build on the progress the voters started.”
Under SQ 781, additional dollars for mental health and substance abuse treatment will be available in the next state fiscal year.
“It takes a year for the first round of savings to accumulate so it can be sent to treatment providers,” Steele said.
Under SQ 781, the state calculates the dollar amount of savings produced by avoided incarceration costs and the Legislature is then required to appropriate those dollars to counties for use by local mental health and substance abuse treatment providers.
Steele said it is important to remember that while SQs 780 and 781 emphasize treatment over incarceration for low-level drug and property offenders, the measures did not decriminalize either activity.
Since July 1, about 6,000 misdemeanor drug possession cases and 3,700 misdemeanor property offense cases have been filed, according to OCJR’s analysis. Within those cases are 6,400 counts of misdemeanor drug possession and 4,200 counts of misdemeanor property crimes.
“These acts are still crimes under SQ 780, as evidenced by the thousands of charges filed in Oklahoma courts for these acts in the past six months. The difference now is, instead of being saddled with scarlet-letter felonies and excessive felony fines and fees, our fellow Oklahomans have a chance to get their lives back on track through treatment,” Steele said.
While drug possession is now a misdemeanor in Oklahoma, drug distribution remains a felony. Since July 1, drug distribution felony case filings have totaled nearly 1,400 – an 18 percent increase over the same period in 2016. Those cases contained almost 1,500 felony counts of drug distribution, an 18 percent increase over the same period in 2016.
Brady Henderson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said the increase in drug distribution filings needs to be closely monitored.
“The ACLU of Oklahoma was proud to join with a diverse, bipartisan coalition to help pass SQs 780 and 781, and we are fully committed to joining those same partners to successfully defend and fully implement these laws,” Henderson said.
Henderson added: “Going forward, we will be closely monitoring prosecutors to ensure no abuse of prosecutorial discretion occurs through the filing of unwarranted drug distribution felony counts. There is legitimate concern that some prosecutors may start filing flimsy felony distribution charges instead of possession charges so they can continue reaping excessive felony offender fines and fees to fund their office budgets. We will be watching closely and are prepared to take action if this abuse occurs.”