Some work to make SQ 780 retroactive
When granting commutations to 21 nonviolent offenders Wednesday, Gov. Mary Fallin said there are still about 1,000 people in Oklahoma prisons for low-level drug offenses who wouldn’t be there today if State Question 780 had been in place.
“They were sent to prison before the law changed, and they will be there unless some type of action is taken,” she said.
There appears to be some momentum from state lawmakers and others to try
to make the law retroactive during the upcoming legislative session.
Approved by voters in 2016, State Question 780 made certain drug and property crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies, but the law didn’t apply retroactively. The maximum penalty now for simple drug possession is one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine.
Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, said he and House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, plan to file a bill that would make State Questions 780 and 781 retroactive.
Oklahomans have “spoken very clearly” that they’d like lawmakers to find remedies “that make sense and that aren’t just punitive to be punitive,” Dunnington said. He said criminal justice reform wasn’t a partisan issue.
“We need to continue the momentum forward and make sure that we’re doing this in a smart way that continues to provide public safety but also in a compassionate way that understands that our state and many of our inmates have addiction issues that we can solve on the outside of prison,” Dunnington said.
The commutations Fallin approved this week were for offenders who were serving 10 years or more for crimes that now carry either no prison time or significantly less prison time under recent reforms approved by voters or lawmakers.
Rep. Josh West, R-Grove, praised Fallin for commuting those sentences and said he looks forward to working next legislative session to ensure that all Oklahomans serving “excessive and unjust sentences” for simple drug possession are resentenced under current law.
People want smart, common-sense reform, West said.
“The public realizes that we do have an incarceration problem, and they spoke loud and clear with 780,” he said. “They want some reform, and I think that it’s smart budget-wise to look at saving taxpayers money.”
Representatives from Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a bipartisan coalition that led a commutation campaign to help the 21 individuals whose sentences were reduced this week, hope the campaign will be part of a larger conversation about making State Question 780 and other reforms retroactive.
“The research is pretty clear that addressing issues of addiction and mental illness through treatment rather than excessive punishment is much more effective in modifying behavior,” Executive Director Kris Steele said. “And it also is much more cost-efficient.”