Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about Together Oklahoma’s Criminal Justice Forum. The second part will appear in The Ardmoreite on Sunday and explain how the Oklahoma Court System is funded and the panelists’ proposals for change.)

Legal experts from the Ardmore area and across the state gathered Thursday evening to discuss criminal justice reform at a forum hosted by Together Oklahoma. The panelists discussed the issues facing the state along with ideas about how to best enact change.
Panelists agreed that the state should find a better way of handling the issues of substance abuse. Damion Shade, justice policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, provided some figures about the state’s incarceration rates and pointed out that substance abuse often goes hand in hand with access to mental health care.
“Criminal justice reform is important in Oklahoma because we are an outlier in a way that I don’t think a lot of people are familiar with,” Shade said. “Oklahoma doesn’t just have the highest rate of incarcerated citizens in America, we actually have the highest rate of incarcerated citizens on earth.”
He said Oklahoma incarcerates an even higher percentage of its population than China, Russia or Iran. He said this stems from policies enacted in the 1990s that called for longer sentences and more punitive punishment. He then compared Oklahoma to Texas, a state that once had similar policies but has since enacted change.
“They invested in mental health and substance abuse treatment,” Shade said. “They invested in prison diversion programs. They invested in ways to take the burden off their prosecutors and their law enforcement (in regard to) low level offenders and to allow their criminal justice system to focus on those individuals who are the most dangerous.”
He went on to say that between 2011 and 2017 these changes enabled Texas to decrease their incarceration number by more than 10,000 people and allowed the state to close eight prisons.
Panelists also discussed reducing Oklahoma’s prison population by making state question 780 retroactive. Beginning July 1, 2018 the question reclassified some felonies as misdemeanors. Some experts argued that making SQ 780 retroactive, thereby releasing those sentenced before the law came into effect, would help reduce the state prison population. Carter County District Attorney Craig Ladd said he opposes this idea because of the “logistical nightmare” it could create.
“Question 780 doesn’t just apply to the possession of drugs, which is what it’s most known for,” Ladd said, adding that in addition to making simple possession of drugs into a misdemeanor, it also reclassified many other crimes including false pawn declarations, concealment of stolen property and forgery. Under the new law, the value of the stolen item(s) must be worth more than $1,000 in order to be considered a felony. Before that there was no such rule in place.
“We now have to allege in our charges that the value was in an amount greater than $1,000,” Ladd said. “There is know way of knowing when you look back (at old cases) if they would fall under the 780 rule if it’s made retroactive.”
Ladd also said that making 780 retroactive could become an issue in determining just how far back the state must look to change former sentences. Instead, he thinks judicial review and modification of sentencing is a better way to deal with these crimes.
“They knew pre-780 that they were committing a felony offense if they got caught,” Ladd said. “To change the rule now is unfair.”