BY DAVID PERRYMAN
The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other industrialized country in the world, and except for North Korea, the numbers are not even close. Frustratingly, among the Southern states whose policies and laws push America’s rate so high, Oklahoma is No. 2 overall and No. 1 for the incarceration of women.
According to a Sept. 1 article in the Daily Ardmoreite, Oklahoma’s prison admission rate has increased 20% over the past five years. These prisoners are disenfranchised from our society and, because we neglect to career-counsel or treat mental illnesses, they become ostracized and even when they are released, they have no path to productivity.
The direct price tag to Oklahoma taxpayers is approximately half a billion dollars a year, but that number is eclipsed by the social cost the state incurs when considering expenses related to children who have one or both parents incarcerated.
Virtually everyone believes that Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is too high, but there is little agreement about what to do about it.
We are where we are because legislators fear being viewed as soft on crime. Instead of common sense legislation that could decrease incarceration rates, bill after bill is filed to show constituents how tough on crime they really are.
Consequently, the Legislature has abdicated a leadership role and is not leading the state to a solution.
The void has been filled by a number of religious and social justice based groups who recognize our dire circumstances and the effects of mass incarceration. They have used the Initiative Petition process to get both SQ 780 and SQ 781 on the Nov. 8 statewide general election ballot.
Supporters of SQ 780 have called it the “Oklahoma Smart Justice Reform Act.” They state that their intent is to implement justice reforms to:  stop wasting taxpayer money keeping people who commit low-level offenses behind bars for years; and  saddle fewer people who commit low-level offenses with felony convictions that will follow them through life and prevent them from getting an education or a job.
If a majority of the voters who go to the polls in November vote yes on SQ 780, 18 sections of Oklahoma statutes would be amended and one statute would be repealed. Proponents say that the net effect of the change would be to reclassify certain non-violent property crimes and drug possession charges as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
The Tulsa County District Attorney says that changing these offenses from felonies to misdemeanors is a mistake and could hamper his ability to negotiate for persons charged with a felony to undergo treatment for addiction or for other plea bargains.
Supporters of SQ 781 have named it the “County Community Safety Investment Fund” to establish an account to hold savings that might be realized if SQ 780 passes. Those funds would be used for community based counseling, treatment and mental health.
SQ 780 may become effective even if SQ 781 fails, but 781 will not become effective if 780 fails.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House