By Michael Kinney
In 2018, Oklahoma earned a label many around the state didn’t want. At that time, the Prison Policy Initiative released a report that showed the state was imprisoning 1,079 people per 100,000 residents. The average for the United States is 679.
This earned Oklahoma the nickname “the world’s prison capital.”
More than two years later, the label has not gone away as Oklahoma’s prison incarceration numbers have continued to surge.
For a lifelong Oklahoman like Kris Steele, hearing his home state defamed in such a matter was painful. But, he also knew it was true.
Therefore, Steele, a Republican who served in the Oklahoma House of Representatives for 12 years (2001-13), is trying to do something about it. He has become an advocate of prison reform.
“I’m a lifelong Oklahoman. I care about my state. I’ve only lived here and I only want to live here. The reality is we can do better,” Steele said. “We should not be leading the world in incarceration. People in Oklahoma are not worse than people in Arkansas, Texas, Kansas, New Mexico or anywhere else in the nation. We need to understand the value of a second chance.”
Steele has joined those looking to pass State Question 805, which is on the ballot in this year’s election. The former Speaker of the House and Ardmore native said the amendment will not only reduce incarceration but also save the state millions of dollars along the way.
“State Question 805 gives us the opportunity to begin the process of safely reducing our state’s prison population, strengthening families and making the best use of our state’s resources,” said Steele, who is a campaign member of the advocacy group Yes on 805.
SQ 805 would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to end the use of sentence enhancements for people convicted of non-violent crimes. People convicted of non-violent felonies could still receive the maximum sentence for a crime, but would not receive additional due to past convictions.
Under the current system that employs sentence enhancements, people who are sentenced to prison can have their sentences extended if they have prior felony convictions.
If it passes, SQ 805 wouldn’t just affect future cases. It would also allow those who are currently incarcerated to have their sentences reduced if sentence enhancements had been used. The Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs suggests ending sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenders could cut the state’s prison population more than eight percent in 10 years.
“According to the latest Bureau of Justice report, we have the highest overall incarceration rate of any state in the nation,” Steele said. “We have the highest female incarceration rate per capita in the world. We are locking up individuals who commit non-violent crimes. And they stay imprisoned in Oklahoma nearly 75 percent longer than they would if they committed the exact same offense in any other state.”
Groups such as Oklahoma State Conference National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP) have come out in favor of SQ 805 due to the high number of minorities who are incarcerated in the state prisons.
Oklahoma’s black and minority communities make up a disproportionate share of our state’s prison population, and a leading reason for that is prosecutorial discretion with sentence enhancements that allows people to be sentenced more than once for the same crime,” said Anthony R. Douglas, president, Oklahoma State Conference NAACP.
According to the NAACP, black people make up 7 percent of the state’s population, but take up 26 percent of those who are incarcerated.
The organization also stated Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate of black men in the nation. One in 29 African American adults in Oklahoma is in prison. Latinos make up nine percent of the Oklahoma population, but 15 percent of the incarcerated population.
“Sentence enhancements are a tool prosecutors use, at their own discretion, to add years and sometimes decades to a person’s sentence,” the NAACP said in a statement. “These harsh sentencing practices have been levied against blacks and minority communities in Oklahoma for decades.”
One of the other reasons Steele is pushing for SQ 805 to pass is the money it will save the state’s taxpayers.
Currently, according to Steele, the state spends nearly $628 million a year to incarcerate non-violent offenders. Steele’s says SQ 805 will cut out a chunk of that annal expense.
“It will take about eight years, for the reforms of State Question 805 to be fully enacted, so, projected saving is anywhere between $35 and $40 million a year,” Steele said. “And then, when we get to year eight, when the reforms are fully enacted, and we’ve saved $200 million, at that moment in time, the savings do become annualized. That $200 million could be reinvested in education. It could be resisted it in treatment, in mental health care, and in services that actually improve the quality of life within our state.”
Yet, not everyone sees SQ 805 the same way as Steele. Several groups have come out against the amendment. They include Oklahoma district attorneys and the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Gov. Kevin Stitt was an early opponent of the amendment.
“Trying to put this into our state’s constitution, it peels back enhancements for DUIs, human trafficking, domestic violence — some of the things I don’t think we need to put into our constitution,” Stitt said, according to Associated Press.
One of the main criticisms of the amendment is that it treats convicted felons who repeatedly commit crimes to the same sentence range as first-time offenders. That does not include violent felony convictions.
According to Oklahomans against 805 “State Question 805 will create a culture where crime is okay in Oklahoma by reducing penalties for career criminals. With SQ 805, habitual offenders of serious crimes will spend less time in prison. These crimes range from domestic violence in the presence of a child, home burglary, to child trafficking, soliciting sex from a minor using technology, animal cruelty and more.”
Jason Hicks, District Attorney for District 6 in southwest Oklahoma, said SQ 805 would also hamper the powers of the state’s district attorneys.
“SQ 805 would take away the ability of the District Attorneys, the courts, and even juries, to lengthen sentences for repeat offenders of so-called “non-violent” crimes,” Hicks wrote in the Chickasha News. “Should this petition become law, repeat felony offenders of these crimes would always be treated as a first-time offender. This means that the punishment for someone repeatedly convicted of domestic abuse by strangulation would never have a sentence of greater than three years in prison and could be eligible for parole in less than a year or for an ankle monitor in just a few months.
“This means Oklahomans could expect someone who has repeatedly beaten or strangled an intimate partner to spend very little time in prison before being released to again endanger lives,” Hicks continued. “Under SQ 805, one of the only ways to ever get such a person out of society for any significant time would be is if their domestic violence actually leads to death.”
Yet, Steele describes criticism like those of Hicks as fear mongering.
“There’s a lot of disinformation,” Steele said. “And individuals who oppose State Question 805 and are trying to protect the status quo are spreading disinformation and using fear and scare tactics to try to get people to vote no.”
Steele specifically points to the complaint that child trafficking falls under the non-violent designation and that SQ 805 would allow the crime to become rampant.
According to Steele, there is not a single person in the Oklahoma prison system serving a sentence involving child trafficking because child trafficking, as defined in Oklahoma’s statute, is an illegal adoption.
“It’s when a person doesn’t fill out the proper paperwork in the adoption process,” Steele said. “That’s what child trafficking is. Human trafficking is a violent crime, regardless of the age of the person. Sex trafficking is a violent crime regardless the age of the person. In fact, in cases of human trafficking or sex trafficking, if the individual involved is a child, the punishment is life in prison. That does not change under State Question 805 whatsoever.”
Steele says at its core, SQ 805 is still about giving people a second chance by not locking them away for non-violent crimes.
“We need to understand the importance of not spending all of our money in a reactionary way that locks people up for 30 or 40 or 50 years for a nonviolent offense simply because we’re mad at them,” Steele says. “We can do better. We can actually improve the quality of life in our state.”
Michael Kinney is a Content Provider