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Ardmore community leaders hold forum on SQ 805 as November election approaches

Sierra Rains
srains@ardmoreite.com
Ardmoreite file photo of voting booths. Oklahomans will vote on SQ 805 in November.

Several Ardmore community leaders joined the director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform in a virtual forum Tuesday evening to discuss the potential impact of a state question that will appear on the November ballot. 

If approved by Oklahoma voters, State Question 805 will prohibit a person’s past felony convictions from being used to make their sentence longer or harsher. The measure will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot as an initiated constitutional amendment and will not apply to anyone who has ever been convicted of a violent felony. 

The state question would also be applied retroactively and provide for sentence modifications for those who are currently serving an excessive sentence based on past felony convictions. Individuals convicted of a past violent crime would not be eligible to apply for relief. 

Joining Kris Steele, the director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Tuesday evening was Mita Bates, the president of the Ardmore Chamber of Commerce, Bo Waddell, the general sales manager of Carter County Dodge, Cheryl Key, president of National Loan Co. Associates, Pastor Ricky McGee, president of the Ardmore chapter of NAACP, Jack Riley, president of CIO and FMI Ardmore and Dimitri Dorsey, a construction worker for Steelrite Metal Buildings. 

Steele, who is an Ardmore native himself, served as the moderator for the forum. As a former member of the state legislature, Steele said he became interested in criminal justice reform when he noticed that spending for incarceration had become Oklahoma’s second fastest growing expenditure in 2008. 

“Oklahoma is experiencing an incarceration crisis,” Steele said, adding that the state’s incarceration population has increased by roughly 600% since 1978. Oklahoma also holds the title as the world leader in female incarceration and last year, Oklahoma became the state with the highest rate of incarceration among African Americans. 

“These are statistics that are not acceptable in any state, but especially the state that we live in,” Steele said. In 2016, a task force studied the criminal justice system in Oklahoma and concluded that the next logical step in criminal justice reform in the state should be to bring sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses more in line with other states. 

As a response to a question from a panelist, Steele explained that he spent a lot of time studying Texas in 2007 as the state began to enact criminal justice reform measures. 

“They began to differentiate between the person who needed to be incarcerated because they posed a legitimate danger or threat to the community versus the non-violent, low level offender that could be better served through supervision and connection with treatment,” Steele said. 

The criminal justice reform enacted in Texas saved $3 billion dollars and allowed the state to close six or seven prisons, lowering the crime rate to the lowest rates the state had seen since 1968, Steele said. The funds saved from the reform in Texas were re-invested in metal health and treatment programs. 

“In Oklahoma we have created a criminal justice system that’s almost entirely based on punishment and retribution,” Steele said. “The reality is there’s got to be elements of grace, there’s got to be opportunities for a second chance, there’s got to be a focus on redemption and reconciliation and restoration if we’re ever going to reach our full potential individually and collectively.”

Following a question from pastor Ricky McGee, Steele explained that an analysis of the state question has shown that the policy would save nearly $200 million by avoiding excessive prison sentences for non-violent offenders. This money could in-turn be invested in education, treatment, mental health care and more. 

Steele said studies have shown that not only are more people being sent to prison per capita in Oklahoma, but people in the state tend to serve longer prison sentences than they would in any other state in the nation. 

“Individuals convicted of a repeat non-violent drug-related offense spend about 79% longer in Oklahoma prisons than they would anywhere else,” Steele said, adding that the percentage is around 70% for repeat non-violent property offenders. 

“Even though they have disposed of that conviction, they have paid their debt and they have served their time for that issue, it can still be used against them to extend their prison sentence beyond that maximum range of punishment through what’s called sentence enhancements,” Steele said. 

In Oklahoma, sentence enhancements are applied in four out of five cases, Steele said. A common question among other panelists was clarification on the offenses the state question would apply to. Mita Bates said this was the most prominent question among board members at the Ardmore Chamber of Commerce. 

The state question would not provide relief for anyone who has ever been convicted of a violent crime. When the language in SQ 805 was drafted, Steele said they used the broadest definition of what constitutes a violent crime in Oklahoma statute. Oklahoma Statute Title 21 contains 85% crimes, where a person is required to serve at least 85% of their sentence. This includes crimes like first degree murder, first degree robbery, first degree rape, lewd molestation of a child and more. 

Title 57 contains a myriad of other crimes that are considered violent in Oklahoma. This includes crimes like assault, battery, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, burglary, robbery, child abuse, rape, rioting, arson, terrorism and more. But does not include crimes such as DUI, domestic abuse and second and third degree burglary. 

Opponents to SQ 805 fear that the measure would remove protections for victims of crimes like domestic abuse that are not currently considered as violent crimes in Oklahoma. 

"Its purpose is to protect repeat offenders from receiving greater punishments than first-time offenders. I have prosecuted many first-degree murder cases, more than I can count on one hand, which stemmed from domestic violence. Truly, I do not understand the logic of seeking a constitutional amendment to go easier on career criminals. It makes absolutely no sense to me,” said District Attorney Craig Ladd in a Feb. 27 interview regarding the possible repercussions of the measure. 

SQ 805 will not, however, hinder the legislature’s ability to reclassify any offense or establish the range of punishment for an offense, Steele said.

Dimitri Dorsey, who also serves as the youth president for the local NAACP chapter, brought a different perspective to the panel as he has first-hand experience with some of the issues the state question seeks to address in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. 

Dorsey has been out of jail for around nine months now, but explained to the panel that he was convicted of a non-violent offense. Though the panelists used the forum primarily to ask questions to clarify the purpose and impact of SQ 805, Steele asked Dorsey to share his story. 

“I can appreciate how you identified yourself but I would identify you as a fellow Oklahoman, an overcomer and as a person who is valuable to the community,” Steele said. 

A felony conviction can make it extremely difficult for released inmates to get back on their feet, Dorsey said. “You are not qualified for a lot of jobs, you’re not qualified to live in a lot of places, you’re over stacked with court bonds and probation fees,” Dorsey said. 

On top of that, former inmates are “living in a bubble” and have to overcome many issues such as mental illness in an environment that isn’t always good for recovery, Dorsey said. Many are not prepared to re-enter society after being locked up and need help that they aren’t receiving, he said. This can lead to re-incarceration and with sentence enhancements, can land some people in jail for several years for a low level non-violent offense. 

“Say one slip up happens — that stuff might run somebody who is mentally weak back to their old ways as far as doing drugs or alcohol— DUI’s whatever the case may be,” Dorsey said. “If they don’t have a life sentence they shouldn’t be doing a life sentence, they should be able to overcome and pay their debt just like anybody else in society.”

Studies have also shown that Oklahoma’s incarceration rates are directly linked to the state’s high rate of grandparents raising their grandchildren — something Dorsey said is apparent in the community. As an African American, Dorsey posed a final question to Steele, asking him to consider the reason behind the high rates of incarcerated African Americans in Oklahoma. 

“I think historically we have not asked ourselves the right questions in creating policy,” Steele said. “I think that we are beginning to understand and come to grips with some of these racial disparities that have infiltrated our criminal justice system and I am very hopeful that the state of Oklahoma sees the value of creating equality within our justice system.” 

To find out more information about State Question 805, Oklahoma voters can visit ballotpedia.org or the Yes on 805 campaign’s website at www.yeson805.org. To read about some of the potential impacts of SQ 805 on domestic violence in Oklahoma, click here or visit The Ardmoreite online at www.ardmoreite.com.