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How a Domestic Violence Loophole Could Doom a Campaign to Cut Oklahoma’s Harsh Prison Sentences

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29.10.2020

Shepard Sherbell/Getty

For the last four years, the fight against mass incarceration in Oklahoma has been a story of unlikely success. In 2016, after decades of creeping prison populations, the state’s incarceration rate reached levels so astronomical that the Prison Policy Initiative would dub it the “world’s prison capital“: More than 1 in 100 Oklahomans was locked up in a prison, jail, juvenile hall, or immigration detention facility. But that year, the same electorate that voted to send Donald Trump to the White House by a 36-point margin also approved a ballot measure softening their state’s notoriously hardline criminal code.

That measure, State Question 780, was a turning point. It downgraded drug possession and a slate of minor property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, while a second measure ensured the money saved by downsizing prisons would go to rehabilitative programs. In 2017, 14,000 fewer felony charges were filed by Oklahoma prosecutors; not long after, the state’s prison population began to fall. Meanwhile, politicians took note of the message the voters had sent. In 2018, the state legislature, where Republicans hold a supermajority, passed more reforms, including streamlining the parole process. Republican businessman Kevin Stitt made reducing the prison population part of his pitch for the governor’s seat, and won.

This year, Oklahoma voters could send another jolt to the system by voting for State Question 805—another adjustment to the state’s harsh sentencing practices. If it passes, SQ 805 could reduce the prison population by 8.5 percent over the next 10 years, according to a projection by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank that supports the initiative.

SQ 805 would add a provision to the state constitution prohibiting prosecutors and courts from jacking up the sentences of people convicted of nonviolent felonies if they have an earlier nonviolent felony on their record. According to the No on 805 campaign, extra years in prison provided by these “sentence enhancements” are needed to hold “career criminals” accountable. Kris Steele, the Republican former state House........

© Mother Jones


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