It is always interesting to see what the Oklahoma legislature has up its sleeve during each year's legislative session. Certainly, some of the proposed bills get a lot of media attention, but other bills fly under the radar and go unnoticed by constituents until their representatives and senators have already voted to pass or reject the measure, regardless of what the people of Oklahoma actually want.
Oklahoma's Prison Problem
Last year, the state legislature made some progressive moves to replace "tough on crime" legislation with "smart on crime" legislation. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation that has the world's highest incarceration rate. In other words, Oklahoma sends more of its people to prison than almost anywhere in the world.
Drug Related Crimes
Many of Oklahoma's inmates are behind bars for drug crimes--typically non-violent drug crimes that would yield much lighter sentences (or possibly not have even been a crime) if they occurred in almost any other state.
It has quickly become apparent that this high incarceration rate and these tough drug laws were not really working to address any problem, and in fact, were generally only making the problem worse.
Proposed Changes to the Law
So in 2016, a number of criminal justice reform bills were passed that would lighten sentences for nonviolent offenders.
For example, the state passed HB 2472, which created a new law, codified in 22 O.S. § 234, that would give District Attorneys discretion in filing charges, allowing them to file misdemeanor charges for crimes that are classified as felonies under state law if certain conditions are met.
HB 2479 removed minimum sentencing for certain drug possession crimes and lessened the associated sentences. The legislature passed HB 2479 into law, and the will of the people was solidified when voters passed SQ 780, which reclassified simple drug possession as a misdemeanor. Previously, it was a felony to possess Schedule I or II drugs, with the exception of marijuana.
But after these moves in the right direction, some Oklahoma legislators are attempting to back-pedal, including one proposal to amend SQ 780 despite it clearly passing by a vote of the people.
Remember, Oklahoma voters just approved in November a measure that would make simple drug possession--possession for personal use--a misdemeanor. Two proposed senate bills want to make it a felony again.
Senate Bill 256 would amend State Question 780 to make drug possession offenses a felony after certain prior drug offenses. This bill would
also bring back a felony offense for possession within 500 feet (lowered from the current 1000) of a school, park, etc. This bill is authored by Sen. Michael Bergstrom (R). Sen. Bergstrom is the state senator for District 1, representing Craig County, Delaware County, Mayes County and Ottawa County.
Senate Bill 512 would completely amend State Question 780 and make all drug possession offenses for Schedule I and II, except marijuana, a felonies, punishable by up to 5 years in prison, even on a first offense. This bill, which would completely overturn the will of the people as demonstrated by their approval of SQ 780, was introduced by the Sen. Ralph Shortey (R). Sen. Shortey is the state senator for District 44, representing Oklahoma County.
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