Liberalized drug laws now in effect

The changes to Oklahoma’s sentencing laws made by the passage last November of State Questions 780 and 781 went into effect on July 1 and the House of Representatives will hold a series of interim studies during the next several months to continue working on additional criminal justice reform efforts.

Representatives Scott Biggs and Tim Downing noted that the changes made by State Questions 780 and 781 are separate from the package of criminal justice reform bills heard by the Legislature during the recently completed legislative session and those state questions will take effect regardless of the current status of the reform bills.

“Those are two distinct issues, and they are completely independent of each other,” said Rep. Downing, R-Purcell, the vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee on Civil Laws. “The will of the people in passing those state questions last November stands, and every statutory change made by the passage of the ballot question, including those not mentioned in the ballot question, will be implemented on July 1. The various criminal justice reform bills that were introduced during the 2017 legislative session have nothing to do with those state questions. Regardless, those criminal justice bills that did not pass this session will be worked on by the House during the interim in preparation for the next legislative session. State Question 780 was a massive change to our criminal laws, and the Legislature should first evaluate and consider its impact on public safety, local jails, and law enforcement, as we review the governor’s additional changes to more crimes.”

State Question 780 reclassified all drug possession, regardless of location, type of drug or number of offenses, to a misdemeanor. It also reduced certain property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. State Question 781 created a fund with the intention of using any savings from the passage of State Question 780 and distributing those funds to the counties for rehabilitative programs and mental health treatment for offenders. Unfortunately, said Downing, the counties will bear the burden of State Question 780 on July 1 without a single dollar promised by State Question 781.

During the legislative session, multiple bills recommended by Governor Mary Fallin’s Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force were passed and signed into law. However, lawmakers had concerns about the impact of other bills recommended by the Task Force in their current format.

“It’s really very simple: some of those bills would have lowered sentences for violent criminals, and I have yet to meet a single constituent of mine who believes that is a good idea,” said Biggs, R-Chickasha, chair of the House Judiciary Committee on Criminal Laws. “Those bills as written were far too broad and would have had unintended consequences for Oklahomans. I am all for rehabilitating the truly non-violent criminals who are not a danger to the public and providing treatment for drug addicts and those with mental health issues, but I have no interest in reducing penalties for domestic abusers, child sex traffickers and those who commit hate crimes, among many other violent crimes that would be reclassified under these bills. We are going to work on these bills so that we can meet the goals of criminal justice reform in a responsible way, while protecting our citizens first and foremost.”

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said those remaining criminal justice reform bills will be worked on during the interim and considered during the 2018 legislative session.