By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer
A former state Speaker of the House spoke to a Yukon group this week about a prison sentencing reform measure on November’s ballot.
Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, touted the merits of State Question 805 on July 28 during the Yukon Rotary Club’s Zoom video conference meeting.
“It’s not just that Oklahoma sends more people to prison than every other state in the nation, it’s also the fact that people in Oklahoma spend longer in prison than they would anywhere else in the United States,” Steele told Yukon Rotarians at their Tuesday lunch meeting.
SQ 805 addresses the common practice of “sentence enhancements” in the Oklahoma court system.
If approved by voters in the Nov. 3rd general election, the measure “would prohibit the use of a former felony conviction to increase the statutorily allowable base range of punishment for a person subsequently convicted of a felony.”
The initiative would allow individuals now incarcerated for felony sentences that were enhanced based on one or more former felony convictions – and whose sentences are greater than the maximum sentence that may now be imposed for such felonies – to seek sentence modification in court.
Passage of SQ 805 would begin the process of bringing sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders in line with national averages, Steele told his audience.
Sentence enhancements for previously convicted felons is utilized in about 80% of cases, he noted.
“If a person has been convicted of a (felony) crime in their past – even though they have paid their debt and served their time for the previous offense – if they are convicted again, prosecutors and judges have the discretion to enhance their sentence beyond the statutory range of punishment,” Steele explained.
“If the range of punishment for a non-violent offense is 0-5 years, but a person has been convicted somewhere in their past, that sentence can be enhanced to 10 years, it can be enhanced to 20 years, it can be enhanced to 30 years, and in some cases life.”
The Yukon Rotary Club’s guest speaker referred to the “epidemic of incarceration” in Oklahoma, noting the state’s prison population since 1978 has grown 600%.
“That is not only tearing families apart, it’s also costing our state a fortune,” Steele said.
The more the state spends on incarceration the less is available for education, healthcare, economic development, infrastructure, and other needs.
Oklahoma voters signed petitions to bring SQ 805 to a vote of the people in November’s election. The Secretary of State on July 6 counted 248,521 signatures and filed them with the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Some 177,958 valid signatures were required.
In Oklahoma, the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiated constitutional amendment on the ballot is equal to 15% of the votes cast for governor in the previous gubernatorial election.
SQ 805 OPPOSITION
SQ 805 has some high-profile detractors.
Former Gov. Frank Keating called this constitutional amendment “the ultimate gift of the career criminal.”
“A person’s selfish and destructive long life of crime will be handled as one first offense after another,” Keating argued. “The 15th offense is the first offense as far as punishment goes.”
Oklahoma already doesn’t hold offenders accountable, according to Candida Manion, executive director of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“When abusers aren’t held accountable, the violence escalates and that’s when they end up killing someone,” Manion said.
District 20 District Attorney Craig Ladd believes the purpose of
SQ 805 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,” Ladd said. “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.”
District 21 District Attorney Greg Mashburn questioned why Oklahoma should go softer on career criminals.
“I don’t understand,” Mashburn said, who thinks SQ 805 is totally unnecessary. “There’s zero deterrent. There has to be a deterrent to get them to change their behavior.”
The Yukon Rotary Club plans to host a speaker who is an opponent of SQ 805 at an upcoming meeting.
POOR ‘RETURN ON INVESTMENT’
Steele served as a state representative from 2000-12 and was speaker of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives for the 53rd Legislature.
He became interested in Oklahoma’s incarceration issue in 2008, when he learned spending for “corrections” had become state government’s second-fastest growing expenditure.
“The amount of money and the number of people we incarcerate in Oklahoma is supposed to lead to reduced crime rates and improved public safety,” Steele related. “But that’s not at all the case as to what’s happening.
“Literally every state that’s contiguous to us and virtually every other state in the nation has lower incarceration rates and lower crime rates. What we’re doing right now is certainly not working. It’s certainly not giving us the return on investment we say that we want.”
Among other points that Steele shared in his Yukon Rotary Club talk were:
- Since 1991, Oklahoma has been the world leader in female incarceration per capita. Today, Oklahoma incarcerates women at about 2-1/2 times the national average.
- 84% of women in prison today are mothers, and 72% of those women have at least one child age 16 or younger. This family disruption adds to an adverse experience for a child, who is more likely to eventually be incarcerated.
- Oklahoma has the highest rate per capita nationally of grandparents raising grandchildren, which studies show is due primarily to mass incarceration.
- A U.S. Sentencing Commission report shows Oklahoma has the highest African American incarceration rate per capita of any state.
After leaving the state legislature, Steele became executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM). He still leads this nonprofit, which is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration in Oklahoma.
In 2016, Steele became involved with a statewide task force on criminal justice reform. Task force members studied how to move from a system based almost entirely on punishment and retribution to one more focused on restoration, redemption and reconciliation.
The task force’s No. 1 recommendation was reducing the length of sentences for Oklahoma’s non-violent offenders – specifically those convicted of drug-related and low-level property crimes.
WHAT IF SQ 805 PASSES?
An estimated 1,600 people now serving time in Oklahoma prisons for non-violent crimes have had sentence enhancements beyond the maximum sentence range.
These prisoners would be allowed to apply for release or commutation if SQ 805 becomes law.
Steele emphasized that people who commit crimes – even non-violent offenses – will still go to prison and face long sentences if the Nov. 3rd ballot measure earns voter approval.
“If State Question 805 passes and sentence enhancements are no longer allowed to be utilized for non-violent offenses, Oklahoma’s current range of punishment for non-violent offenses would still be three times longer than those of Arkansas, Texas, Kansas, and New Mexico,” he pointed out.
There is a range of punishment for every non-violent offense.
“It’s just that (Oklahoma courts) will have to stay within the statutory range of punishment,” Steele said, if 805 passes. “They’re not going to be able to add all these arbitrary additional years or decades onto a person’s sentence beyond the maximum range of punishment.”
Once SQ 805 reforms are fully implemented, Steele cited statistics showing this would save the State of Oklahoma some $186 million over 10 years.
In that same period, he estimated the measure would lead to an 8.5% reduction in the state’s prison population. Oklahoma prisons are now at 104% capacity.
There are people who legitimately pose a threat to society and a danger to the community – and they need to be off the streets, Steele said.
“We have to be sure we have space and we’re not filling up our prisons with individuals who have committed non-violent offenses,” he added. “Or individuals who need help and can be better served, with less money, through treatment and accountability in the community.”