OKLAHOMA CITY—Oklahomans will vote in November on two proposals that could significantly reduce the number of people sent to prison in one of the most incarcerating states in the country.
The measures, State Questions 780 and 781, would reclassify simple drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 from felonies to misdemeanors. Instead of prison time, people convicted of those crimes would receive drug treatment, mental health treatment, and rehabilitation programs that would be paid for by the savings from not locking them up.
Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, after Louisiana, and its prisons are at 115% capacity. If the measures are approved by voters, they're expected to reduce annual prison admissions by 25%, the rate of new inmates who are currently convicted of low-level property crimes and drug possession. Because it costs Oklahoma $15,000 to incarcerate someone and only $6,000 to treat them while they're on probation, the state could save between $30 and $40 million a year.
Reducing the number of felonies would also mean less people would struggle to find employment, housing, and education because of a permanent criminal record. One in 12 state residents is a convicted felon, according to The Oklahoman newspaper.
Legislators and Governor Mary Fallin have already taken steps to reform the state's criminal justice system, including lowering mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and raising the threshold for some property felonies to $1,000. But Kris Steele, the former Republican Speaker of the State House and one of the referendums' chief backers, said most legislators would be wary of being tarred as "soft on crime" if they passed broader reforms to drug laws.
“We want to sort of bypass the political gridlock that has set us back and give the people of Oklahoma a chance to weigh in on these issues,” he told me. “If we are successful in November, I truly believe the legislature will feel like the people have spoken and that it’s OK and probably even expected to take a smarter approach to criminal justice policy."
Of course, the opposite is also true. “If these state questions do not pass in November, it’s likely that the legislature will interpret that result as the people have spoken and we’re probably done talking about this issue for the next 10 years,” he said. “That keeps me up at night.”
That makes it a high-risk, high-reward proposition for criminal justice activists, who so far have been mostly focused on lobbying legislators. The only other state with criminal justice reform on the ballot in November is California, where voters will decide whether to support a measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would allow thousands of inmates serving time for nonviolent charges to get early parole. (Californians and Nebraskans will also vote on referendums over ending the death penalty.)
Nationally, polls show that Americans support reforms to reduce sentences for low-level criminals, especially those convicted of drug crimes. Steele said internal polling has shown Oklahomans are also supportive of the measures.
The coalition of groups supporting the initiatives—known as Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform—includes the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative group Right on Crime, and several law enforcement leaders. So far, supporters of the initiatives have collected 110,000 signatures to get each of the measures on the ballot and held a series of town hall meetings around the state promoting them. Now they’re planning direct mail and TV ads in the two months until election day.
Their first ad, which was filmed this weekend, focuses on the story of Oklahoma City resident Meagan Gaddis, a 29-year-old former drug addict. Gaddis, a mother of two, served six months in jail for drug possession and larceny. After she got help from a diversion program similar to those that would be funded if the measures pass, she turned her life around, got sober, and is now close to graduating from the University of Central Oklahoma with a bachelor of arts in sociology.
The counselors in her program “didn’t look at me as a criminal, they looked at my potential,” Gaddis told me. “They looked at me like a person who deserves whatever I wanted to achieve in life. I soared from that experience.”
In the ad, Gaddis and her grandmother talk about the fear of living as an addict and the power of getting a second chance. “It feels really good to use my voice and my past to help facilitate change on a great scale,” she said. She’s also spoken at several of the group’s town hall meetings.
There doesn’t seem to be any organized group opposing the measures, although some sheriffs and prosecutors have spoken out against them. The proposals' supporters want "to let everybody out of prison, and that's not what's healthy for the communities,” Greg Mashburn, the DA for Cleveland County, told The Norman Transcript.
Steele said he’d encourage activists in other states to take reform initiatives straight to the voters. “It’s resulted in a very healthy conversation happening in our state” about the costs of mass incarceration, he said—one that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.