Let’s be clear about what is actually being proposed in SQ 780 before we vote.
Proponents of SQ 780 refer to “simple possession” of drugs. Possession of marijuana first offense has always been a misdemeanor in Oklahoma and will remain so. What they really are pushing for is classifying all “possession” of drugs as misdemeanors (excluding distribution and trafficking). Surprisingly, this includes very dangerous drugs: heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine, codeine, LSD, PCP, numerous synthetic chemical compounds and list goes on and on. These crucial facts should not be ignored.
Nothing in SQ 780 would ever permit possession of these drugs from being classified as a felony, regardless of whether it was your first, second, fifth, 15th, 55th or prosecution. This is a bad for public safety and sadly for those fighting addictions.
The Legislature recently passed a new law this year, HB 2472 which will allow local district attorneys the discretion to file a misdemeanor instead of a felony on all crimes, not just drug crimes, but excludes those felonies classified as violent “85 percent” punishment crimes. District attorneys answer directly to the people because they are elected officials. They have more complete factual and historical information in their files than anyone else, allowing them to help direct criminal outcomes. This exercise of authority achieves justice for everyone. This new law is vastly superior to SQ 780’s proposal and will reap huge individual, financial and community benefits. Let’s give it a chance to work.
Those addicted to drugs typically don’t wake up one day and say to themselves, “I think I will get clean and sober today” without encouragement. They enter the criminal justice system because they were arrested and prosecuted. Compassionate leverage is often offered by the local prosecutors and defendants can choose the opportunity to receive treatment, instead of prison time.
Tulsa and Oklahoma counties have traditionally accounted for more than 50 percent of the total felonies committed in the state but together oversee the largest drug treatment and alternatives to prison in the state. Since 1994, under current law, while prosecuting drug possessors we have identified, assessed and offered programs to assist thousands of defendants who want help beating their addictions without going to prison or suffering a felony conviction. It may be a shock to some but many individuals don’t want help until they “hit rock bottom.”
Until people realize their personal need for help they won’t become “clean and sober.” A community’s desire for them isn’t enough, they must want it for themselves. If a maximum punishment for drug possession is never higher than a misdemeanor level, the “compassionate leverage” created by the threat of a felony prosecution will vanish from the prosecutors toolbox of plea negotiation options. In the end, fewer addicted people will actually receive treatment.
I agree with alternatives to prison and implemented them in Tulsa County when I was the district attorney. They remain and are growing every year. These alternatives hold defendants accountable while keeping marriages and families together, supporting our need for a vibrant and necessary workforce and treating mental illness through supervised accountability and not prison. Criminal defendants from Tulsa County are not going to prison for first-time non-violent offenses, especially drug possession. According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, from 2005-2010, in Tulsa County, 75 percent of defendants convicted of drug possession were sentenced to community-based alternatives.
A prosecutor’s review of an individual’s criminal history or a defendant’s choice clearly reveals why the other 25 percent are not interested or don’t qualify for prison alternatives.
The four new laws became effective Nov. 1, 2016 – empowering drug courts, treatment alternatives and amending punishments for drug possession – were criminal justice reforms recommended to the Legislature by a panel of criminal law experts with over 150 years of criminal law experience, including public defenders, judges, criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors (of which I was honored and humbled to be a part). I love the people of Oklahoma and spent 28 years fighting for freedom and justice in the criminal justice system.
I want only good reforms for all the people. Let the new laws work!
Vote no on SQs 780 and 781.