Proponents of State Question 805 have until late March to collect the appropriate number of signatures for it to reach the ballot this year. While its supporters contend that it would help reduce the prison population in Oklahoma, others are concerned about the impact it could have on the criminal justice system.
If it reaches the ballot and is passed by voters, S.Q. 805 would prohibit previous felony convictions from being used to enhance an individual's sentence, if they are convicted of a nonviolent crime. Also, those currently incarcerated for felony sentences that were enhanced based on felony convictions would be allowed to petition the court for a sentence modification.
Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform, a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates, claim that the state's high prison population is fueled by sentence enhancements that punish people for their previous mistakes.
"These enhanced sentences unfairly punish Oklahomans for debts they have already paid and tip the balance of legal proceedings even more toward prosecutors," said the coalition in a statement on the Yes on 805 webpage. "Unfair, extreme sentencing leads to more of our family members, friends, neighbors and fellow Oklahomans in prison for longer periods of time. The result? Oklahomans pay more in taxes to imprison our people, reduce our workforce and leave families in poverty longer."
However, the proposed ballot initiative has raised concerns among district attorneys and advocates for domestic abuse victims.
A main issue for many people is that the measure would end sentence enhancements for offenders of nonviolent crimes, but crimes like domestic abuse and second degree burglary are not considered violent offenses in Oklahoma. Under state law, choking a family member to the point they lose consciousness is considered a nonviolent crime.
Help In Crisis Executive Director Laura Kuester said if the measure was passed, it would "increase lethality potential for high-risk victims" of domestic abuse.
"The thing about this question is that it's lumped into a lot of other criminal justice reform," said Kuester. "There are pieces of it that look good, but the bottom line is it doesn't necessarily benefit victims. Prosecutors won't be able to ask for higher sentences for an offender with a history or a pattern of domestic abuse."
Kuester agreed that domestic abuse should be added to the list of violent crimes.
One of the most common crimes in Cherokee County is burglary in the second degree. District 27 District Attorney Jack Thorp, who also covers Adair, Sequoyah, and Wagoner Counties, said his jurisdiction is "plagued" with property crimes. Thorp added that most individuals who receive a prison term don't typically have just one or two prior felony convictions, and sentence enhancements "is how you ultimately stop individuals from committing crimes."
"They have six to 10 felony prior convictions," he said. "That's the target for 805 - those individuals that have had all of these multiple felony convictions in the past [and] they don't want that to be something that is considered in the sentencing in the future. To me, I don't know how you can't consider that."
Oklahoma is one of the few states that still has jury sentencing. Thorp said juries always want to know an offender's criminal history when suggesting a sentence.
"Each and every time we have a jury in the box, that's a constituency of that community," he said. "And when they receive information that an individual has prior felony convictions, that affects the type of sentence they recommend to the judge."
Thorp pointed out that it generally takes a third felony offense before people are looking at having to serve time in prison. He also said prosecutors have the ability to listen to victims and grant mercy to offenders, depending on the crime.
"A lot of times, the victim doesn't want the individual to go to prison, because they want restitution," he said. "So we have the ability to - on a case-by-case situation - to look down and say, 'OK, I'm going to give you this shot,' and we can grant mercy, which I think is something that is clearly a factor. It's something I've always exercised throughout my career as a prosecutor."
The state has taken some steps to reducing the prison population. In November, more than 400 inmates with low-level drug and property crimes were released in the largest single-day commutation in U.S. history. That was the result of legislation signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt that also paved the way for another 124 inmates to be released last week.
"We've gone through a process now of reducing a significant amount of crimes to misdemeanors," said Thorp. "Our simple possession drug crimes are all treated as misdemeanors now. I think it's time to let these types of reform measures that have been passed, have been codified, and are on the books, to let them take effect."
Oklahoma is considered to have the highest incarceration rate in the country.
Okies, compared to the rest of the nation, typically spend 70 percent more time in prison for property crimes. And while criminal justice reform advocates and Department of Corrections officials are concerned about the housing and supervision of those already found guilty, as well as the cost of the current system to taxpayers, Thorp said he is more concerned about the safety of communities.
"We look at it from a standpoint of, what can I do in this specific case to make my community safer?" he said. "Is the removal of this individual and sending this individual to an incarceration going to make the community safer? I think that's something that always has to be our No. 1 concern."