Recently, several people have asked my opinion regarding State Question 805, which is on the ballot Nov. 3. I have spoken with scores of District 27 citizens about the concerns I have. I am always mindful that every person is entitled to their opinion, and my wish is that everyone research the issues they will be voting on. In my personal opinion, State Question 805 is dangerous for our communities, not needed at this time, and will further exacerbate our already high incidence of property crimes.
SQ 805 is a ballot initiative that changes the Oklahoma Constitution, eliminating sentence enhancements for repeat felony offenders of so-called “non-violent offenses.” Sentence enhancements are often (but not always) used to increase the potential punishment for individuals who have been found guilty by the court and/or jury. This measure would restrict prosecutors from enhancing the possible range of punishment for those offenders who have multiple prior felony convictions and would therefore treat each crime as if it were a first offense.
Having argued punishment to juries in Adair, Cherokee, Sequoyah and Wagoner counties for the last 10 years, I know that the citizens who have served on these juries want and deserve to know the criminal history of the individuals who have been found guilty, by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, as they assess a potential range of punishment. Our juries want to know whether they are punishing a first-time offender or a habitual criminal. It is common sense. A person who has had numerous opportunities to embrace lesser sentences, such as probation, should not be afforded these types of sentences if they have a demonstrated history of violating the laws that the vast majority of District 27 citizens live by.
Some of the crimes described as “non-violent” that SQ 805 would reduce enhancements for include: Burglary 2nd Degree, Arson 2nd Degree, Domestic Assault and Battery by Strangulation, DUI Great Bodily Injury, Transmission of Child Pornography, Animal Cruelty, Stalking, and Drug Distribution. The term “non-violent” is a statutory term that relates to a specific class of cases, but is not indicative of real world crime and a significant number of the crimes affected involve causing serious physical injuries to others.
With the passage of State Question 780 in 2016, a significant number of drug and property crimes were reduced to misdemeanors, crimes such as Possession of Heroin and Methamphetamine. This change in the law, while not dealing with significant drug abuse, has reduced the amount of individuals sentenced to prison in District 27. Governor Stitt’s pardon and commutation docket meets monthly and has further reduced the prison population. Finally, the recent Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma regarding jurisdiction to prosecute crime will greatly reduce state incarceration numbers as the Tribal and Federal courts will begin prosecuting a significant portion of District 27 criminal offenders. Neither of those prosecution entities will be sentencing offenders to Oklahoma prisons. Our State prison population will drop significantly and accomplish the primary goal of SQ 805.
Finally, it is common sense to understand that if crime is not dealt with, it will flourish. Once individuals realize that they are not susceptible to enhanced punishments, they may be more likely to burglarize and steal. Nearly every criminal justice leader can attest to the epidemic of property crimes in our area. Without the deterrent of possible incarceration, along with the lack of criminal enforcement jurisdiction due to McGirt, bad actors are significantly more likely to offend and do so with very little chance of law enforcement interference. Safety in our homes and for our loved ones, as well as protection of our possessions is a right for District 27 families, and reduced enforcement and prosecution power interferes with and is detrimental to this right.
There are several other ways to continue criminal justice reform without amending our Constitution. Allow legislators the time to study these issues, and if necessary, amend our criminal statutes. Currently, State leaders are in the process of reclassifying crimes. Allow the time necessary for the recent criminal justice reforms to take shape before adding more. Consider the victims of these so-called “non-violent” crimes and a societal need for restitution and retribution. Do not restrict Oklahoma’s juries, judges, and prosecutors in their efforts to administer justice. Please reject and vote NO on State Question 805.
Jack Thorp is the district attorney for District 27, which includes Adair, Cherokee, Sequoyah and Wagoner counties.